Poisoned truth, preposterous reconciliation

Amnesty International takes up Grassy Narrows' desperate, decades-long human-rights battle with Ottawa over ruinous effects of mercury in water


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This is a story that belongs to James Keesick of Grassy Narrows First Nation, given to his great-grandson Darwin Fobister, who then told it to reporters because he wanted them to know. It’s a story that happened three decades before 22-year-old Fobister was even born, and this is how it goes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/11/2019 (1177 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This is a story that belongs to James Keesick of Grassy Narrows First Nation, given to his great-grandson Darwin Fobister, who then told it to reporters because he wanted them to know. It’s a story that happened three decades before 22-year-old Fobister was even born, and this is how it goes.

One day, Keesick was out on the river that flows around his community. He set his net in the water, and when he came back the next morning to check on his catch, he admired how it sat in the river. The water was so clear he could see right to the bottom. He could see the silvery backs of the fish moving in the current.

“What a good day,” he thought, as he reeled in the net.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Darwin Fobister, a 22-year-old mercury survivor from Grassy Narrows First Nation, speaks at the launch of a campaign calling on government to address the mercury crisis of the First Nation, at a press conference at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg on Monday.

Suddenly, the water started to change. A brown cloud was moving through it, something that Keesick had never before seen on the river. Alarmed, he left the water. When he went back the next day, the river was murky and strange. What was worse, the fish were lying belly-up on the shore.

Over the years, Keesick and his family thought maybe that was the beginning, the start of the Dryden-based Reed Paper chemical plant’s toxic waste dumping into the territory that sustained Grassy Narrows. Between 1962 and 1970, the mercury-laden waste coursed into their water, their land, their bodies, their children.

Sometimes, Fobister goes down to the lake. He looks at the water and tries to picture it, before the change.

“Imagine seeing this water clear,” he says. “Now today, it’s green.”

As he speaks, chatting with a mass of reporters at a Thunderbird House press conference, Fobister’s hands are trembling. That’s an effect of the mercury he bears, one of many: he can’t play tug of war, he says sadly, since his hands shake so much. The poisoning of Grassy Narrows reached down through generations.

In Fobister’s family today, he can think of at least eight people who live with “pretty bad” symptoms, he says. One cousin is 10 years old and has had a few serious seizures already. Another cousin has mercury in her brain, and major seizures, and has to see a specialist several times a year. His sister lost the sight in one eye.

That, too, is an old story, now, and not only in time. Versions of it have been told in countless iterations. The mercury poisoning of the Wabigoon River system was wrought in the 1960s, discovered in 1970 and wrangled over nearly every year since, in courts of both law and public opinion.

Yet here they are, still fighting for healing. Over the years, the people of Grassy Narrows became expert advocates; they had to be, in order to be heard. If they hadn’t pushed the conversation, this much is certain: Canada would’ve been happy to sweep the situation under the rug, to let the stories of Grassy Narrows be forgotten.

After all, even despite the community’s tireless advocacy, the damage has still not been fully addressed. When a Grassy Narrows member interrupted a Liberal party fundraiser in Toronto in March, unfurling a banner calling for help to combat the effects of the disaster, Justin Trudeau’s response was to glibly thank her for her donation.

The prime minister apologized the next morning, but the gulf between the worlds then could not have been more stark. The Liberal government has pledged to support a mercury-treatment centre in the community. This is how Trudeau treated an advocate for that place of healing when she arrived in his world.

This year, Amnesty International is taking up the banner. To mark their annual Write for Rights Day on Dec. 10, the international human-rights organization is highlighting the story of Grassy Narrows and encouraging supporters to write letters to the Canadian government demanding concrete action.

More information on that campaign, including statements from Grassy youth, is available at

Chris Young / The Canadian Press files A Grassy Narrows activist interrupts Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at an open Liberal fundraising event in Toronto on Aug. 13. Her concerns were glibly dismissed.

The redress the people of Grassy Narrows are asking for is straightforward: a full cleanup of the river, which they believe may still have old waste barrels leeching into the water. A mercury-poisoning treatment centre, equipped to handle the health conditions that are rife on the reserve. Compensation for the generations still affected.

Currently, Fobister says, it costs community members up to $3,000 to be flown out to hospital by helicopter during serious health incidents. When they do seek medical treatment outside the community, they sometimes encounter doctors who aren’t familiar with the vast range of mercury-poisoning symptoms.

“If we have the mercury home, at least they’ll be focused on the main issue,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘he’s dealing with these symptoms, it’s mercury-related.’ It’ll help.”

This is the future that Grassy Narrows wants. Against the wealth of a nation, it is modest. Against a great harm that was done to a community of people, one that has and will persist for generations, it is just. The most basic question for the federal government now is simple: why hasn’t it already been done?

In a way, that’s a rhetorical question. This is, after all, a nation still wrestling with what reconciliation must look like. Still reluctant to grasp that the term only begins at listening and cannot end there; it must continue to action. The Anishinaabe of Grassy Narrows have been waiting generations for this to happen.

And maybe it will come at last, for this generation. The Grassy Narrows youths who came to Winnipeg this week to spread their message were just a few members of a burgeoning movement. They know their history. They love their community. They have found the strength to carry the torch of hope forward.

Fobister is a photographer. He doesn’t have a fancy camera, but he uses his phone to capture images of the land. He pulls out his phone, and scrolls through a few photos of green forests and purple sunsets, of water lapping against rocky shores. This is home; all he wants is to save it.

“I see Grassy as a beautiful community,” he says. “It has all these beautiful landscapes. Water is a beautiful thing. It helps create life, it helps keep life. I just want something to be done, and I want something to improve. Grassy has positives, too.”

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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