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Restoring faith in the media

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Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Return to Grassy Narrows

A poisoned community tells its 40-year-old story

Bob Rodgers

Editor’s Note: This article was written with Ivy Keewatin, a resident of Grassy Narrows.

“First they took us kids away to the residential school. Next they built hydro dams so the rice got flooded and old graves went underwater. Then they made the families leave their log houses and go into prefabs all crowded together on a back bay. After that came the mercury that poisoned the fish. Now they’re taking the trees away.”

The speaker is Ivy Keewatin, the place Grassy Narrows, 80 kilometres north of Kenora, Ontario. I had been a fishing guide there for five summers in the 1950s under the tutelage of Ivy’s father, Andy Keewatin, head guide at Ball Lake Lodge and chief at the Grassy Reserve. Anchored below Wabigoon Falls with Ivy, our fishing lines strung out and humming in the current, I remembered the many times I had taken my guests to fish this spot and stopped for a shore lunch of crisp, deep-fried pickerel our American guests called “walleyes.” It was still good fishing here, but Ivy and I would not be eating fish today. Throughout the 1960s Reed Paper in Dryden dumped 9 metric tonnes of untreated inorganic mercury into the system 200 kilometres upstream and the fish are still contaminated.

Since 1970, when the bad news first broke, Grassy Narrows has become synonymous with mercury pollution and its toxic corollary, Minamata disease. In one of Canada’s prime commercial and sport fishing territories, the signs went up showing a skull and crossbones overlaying a frying pan and the words: “Fish for Fun.” The news crippled the Kenora tourist industry, but it spelled calamity for the thousand-plus Ojibwa of Whitedog Falls and Grassy Narrows, whose chief occupation was guiding and, more importantly, whose main staple was the abundant golden pickerel of the English River.

But mercury was neither the first nor the last assault. Strife began in the 1950s when Ontario Hydro built dams at Ear Falls and Whitedog, which led to fluctuations in water levels that played havoc with the wild rice harvest and degraded the habitat of fish and fur-bearing animals. Then, in the 1960s, Indian Affairs began moving families scattered around the shores and islands of Grassy Lake into “612s” (the notorious 612-square-foot government prefabs), promising—but for over a decade failing to provide—running water and electricity. For many the transplantation brought a sense of displacement bordering on culture shock, a sudden wrenching from cabin plots often kilometres apart, and from widely dispersed winter traplines, to the densely packed checkerboard of a white-man-style village with poor soil that could not sustain their traditional corn and potato gardens. “I was 19 years old,” said Ivy, “when I first heard we were moving. It was exciting news, something new. I couldn’t figure out why my dad got so upset.

“I soon learned. On the old reserve we lived in family groups—the Swains, the Keesiks, the Lands, the Tanguays, the Loons, the Fobisters, the Beavers—all of us. We got together at feasts and celebrations and at times when there were disagreements that needed settling, but we had privacy. If you got mad at somebody you had to paddle a mile or two to give him a piece of your mind. In the new place, crowded together … we weren’t used to it. The fights and broken windows and battered doors, the house fires, the drugs, the bootleg booze—everything changed. People said it was the mercury that made us crazy. That was only part of the story.”

Ivy inherited a couple of things from her father. One was a talent for comparisons. After reading dozens of explanations for the tragedy of Grassy, I was brought back to her remark: “You put too many deer in a park they get nervous and crazy. A lot of them die off, nobody knows why.”

Batteries of missionaries, medics, sociologists and journalists have come and gone because of Grassy’s reputation as one of the most violent and distressed reserves in Canada. Diagnoses have ranged from the effects of family dysfunction caused by the trauma of residential schools to the economic and health ramifications of mercury contamination. Popular sentiment among locals in the Kenora area, including many in government, often attributes everything to alcohol. After all, what are the symptoms of Minamata disease? Deterioration of motor control, memory loss, speech impairment, failing eyesight, miscarriages and children born with developmental disabilities.

Mercury blood levels of 20 parts per billion are considered normal. After a series of random tests, notification sent to individuals at Grassy by the Ontario Ministry of Health reported levels ranging from 45 to 289 ppb. In 1975 Dr. M. Harada and Dr. T. Fujimo, world experts on Minamata disease, did neurological tests on 44 residents at Grassy and 43 at Whitedog. Of all those tested, 28 had numbness, 40 unexplained pain in limbs and 16 muscular cramps. Although far from conclusive, these are all early symptoms of mercury disease.

The same doctors returned to Grassy Narrows in 2002. Of the original 44 examinees, 19 were dead. More methodical test results of a further 57 were as follows:

Numbness . . . . . 38 (66.6 percent)

Pain in limbs . . . 26 (45.6 percent)

Limb cramps . . . 24 (42.1 percent)

Hearing loss . . . . 15 (26.4 percent)

Balance . . . . . . . . 14 (24.5 percent)

Headache . . . . . . 13 (22.8 percent)

Dizziness . . . . . . 12 (21.0 percent)

Memory lapse . . . 12 (21.0 percent)

Tremors . . . . . . . 12 (21.0 percent)

After almost 40 years, compensation is finally being paid based on neurological tests done in Winnipeg. Those potentially impaired are classified as “acknowledged” or “rejected” by the Mercury Disability Board, which includes representatives from the band. Victims receive between $200 and $800 a month, but suspicion abounds that the amounts are based as much on who you are related to as on the severity of your disability. It cannot be the best way of ministering to an already fractured community.

“The money came 30 years too late,” says Ivy. We had left off fishing at Wabigoon Falls and stopped to walk around her family’s old plot on Grassy Lake. Nature had reclaimed most of the log cabin, storehouse and outhouse built by her father, and the garden was overgrown with tall grass and willows. “How many guides do you remember from the old days?” she asked me. I began to list them off—her father, Andy Keewatin, of course, Tom Tanguay, Dave Assin, Joe and Steve Loon, Robert Land, Ed Hyacinth, Jim Swain, Mathew Beaver and a dozen others who a long time ago had treated a greenhorn with patience and good humour.

“Do you know how many are left?”

I didn’t.

“One’s left: Jim Swain.”

“What did they die of?”

“Some of old age but most from accidents. Joe Loon and Dave Assin drowned. There were stabbings and gunshot wounds and houses burned down and boat accidents and assaults during drinking bouts.” When I checked the statistics, I was amazed. Between 1959 and 1963, 90 percent of deaths at Grassy were from natural causes, less than 10 percent from violence, including suicides. Between 1974 and 1978, the ratio was 20 percent from natural causes, 80 percent from violence.

“Did any of the old guides die of mercury?”

“Hell no. Not a single one.”

What Ivy meant was that not a single death had ever been officially attributed to mercury.

Three cases came close to establishing a precedent, though. Tom Strong, long-time fishing guide, middle-aged and apparently healthy, died suddenly. Rumour had it his mercury count was ten times normal. An inquest in January 1973 concluded that the blood sample from the autopsy had been contaminated in the lab and that the cause of death was probably heart attack.

Marcel Pahpasay guided throughout the 1960s at Clay Lake, only 50 kilometres downstream from Dryden. That lake’s fish registered the highest levels of methyl mercury on the river system. Marcel and his wife, Rosey, ate fish nearly every day in summer. Two of their children were stillborn. A third, Keith, was born mentally deficient and deformed. He is still alive today in a Montreal hospital. At 75, Marcel has had no word about his son for seven years and has no money to travel. The cause of Keith’s affliction has never been identified.

The third possible precedent was Mathew Beaver, a fishing and hunting guide from the age of 19. When the first test was done on him he registered 289 ppb, the highest level recorded at Grassy. He began to show more and more symptoms of mercury impairment until 1998, when he was hit on the head in a scrap and died. There was no autopsy.

Ivy Keewatin spent eight years in residential school in Macintosh. Despite her time away she learned many skills from her father, not just filleting a fish or skinning a bear, but how deep to sink the pole when trapping muskrats, how to snare rabbits when food was scarce, where the fish moved through the seasons and what to do with a moose when you shot it. She never talked to me about school except once to say that she had worked in the kitchen where she remembered preparing roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy for the staff dining room and boiled fish soup for the kids, with heads, tails, guts and scales all thrown in.

I asked her if she received compensation.

“Oh yeah,” she said.

“Others too?”

“Everyone who got taken away to St. Mary’s or Macintosh.”

“Is that why I see so many SUVs in people’s yards?”

Ivy gave me her sly look. “When the Joneses buy a Lexus in Toronto do the neighbours buy a Neon?” Then she shrugged. “But that’s just part of it. Don’t forget, a little while ago we didn’t use dollars, just beaver pelts. We traded. Most older people, the ones from the residential schools, don’t even have a bank account. What are they going to do when suddenly they get a cheque for twenty or thirty thousand dollars?”

“How come you have no SUV?”

“I put half my money in trust for school for my nieces and nephews.”

“Do many others do that?”

“Not that I know of.”

Ivy’s family lived through the worst period of the residential schools. Yet somehow they retained a droll tone to their memories. Andy told Ivy about boys who took their clothes off in January and ran into the bush to freeze. “Why didn’t you run?” she asked. “I did,” Andy said, “but I kept my clothes on and didn’t stop running.”

Ivy’s younger brother, Andy Junior, spent two years at St. Mary’s in Kenora. “He and a friend ran away when they were seven.” Ivy laughed as she spoke. “After two days wandering in the bush they ended back in the school yard. They got a real beating. I told him he would make one hell of a guide. Years later, he went to a baseball game in Winnipeg when he spotted the teacher who beat him. It was the same man who used to take him by the head and grind his knuckles into his hair. Andy began to tremble. Memories came back. He had to do something. He went over to the man, knocked his hat off and ground his knuckles into his hair. The man looked up startled and stared at him for a moment. Then he muttered: “I’m sorry.”

“Just like Harper. Front page everywhere,” said Ivy. “‘Canada is sorry for the residential schools.’ The Liberals had already put aside two billion in compensation money. Didn’t cost Harper a penny. Silly bugger thought he would get Native votes. Not from here he won’t.”

When I guided in the 1950s, there were 500 people at Grassy—trappers, commercial fishers, fishing and hunting guides, and band functionaries. About 20 percent of the families had no paycheques, but they could live off rice and fish and wild meat and trade goods for their furs. No one was on welfare. Fifty years later, there are 800 people at Grassy. A dozen of them have band jobs. The unemployment rate is 96 percent. Welfare is the mode. Within months of puberty, boys and girls of 13 and 14 are having sex and children. Most of the young couples have little education and no skills. The monthly cash welfare allowance for a family of three after shelter expenses are withheld is $400.

“When the mercury came, nothing happened for years,” said Ivy. “Nowadays the government throws money at us. But nothing much changes. Some projects are plain crazy. Take my brother Larry’s house. It’s one of two log cabins on the reserve. It was supplied for my dad as an experiment when he was chief. The logs were poplar, pre-cut to size and trucked in from Saskatchewan, like those kids’ log sets we used to buy for Christmas presents. We’re surrounded here by the straightest Norway pines in the world. We’ve been building log cabins for a thousand years. Multiply that kind of stupidity a couple dozen times and you’ve got government programs at Grassy.”

The reserve sits on 36.25 square kilometres within a 6,475-square-kilometre tract of traditional land use. What rights do band members have in their traditional territory? That is a question being disputed by treaty Indians across Canada. Grassy’s Treaty of 1873 states that Indians “shall have the right to pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing throughout the tract surrendered … saving and excepting such tracts as may, from time to time, be required or taken up for settlement, mining, lumbering or other purposes” [my italics]. In this and in other treaties the words “cede,” “release,” “surrender” and “yield” are key. A purely legalistic interpretation would seem to allow the government to do what it likes. But enough legal precedents have now been set in Canada, based on the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to sway lawmakers into recognizing that aboriginal chiefs did not think they were giving their land away just to be nice, but rather that they believed they were formalizing an agreement to share the land and keep the peace.

Until now, AbitibiBowater (supplier of newsprint for hundreds of newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post) and the huge multinational Weyerhaeuser (among other things a major supplier to the U.S. building industry) have paid scant attention to Native concerns. Ed Hyacinth’s old trapline at Twin Lake is a clear-cut wasteland. Abitibi paid his family to go away. Andy Keewatin Jr.’s trapline, not far from there at Wilcox Lake, is within earshot of the giant clear-cutting feller-bunchers—and, councillor Bill Fobister says, 70 percent of the band’s traditional traplines have been clear-cut.

“In 2002,” Ivy said, “four young people and a few others said they had enough. They set up a blockade on the logging road. Kids from the Grassy school joined in. They started holding their classes there. Suddenly big-timers arrived from Rainforest Action Network and Amnesty International. It’s now the longest-lasting blockade in Canadian history. A bunch of young people even marched all the way to Toronto to protest the destruction of Whisky Jack forest and their way of life. That’s where it’s coming from—the hope. It’s coming from the young who are starting to think for themselves.

“What you have to realize is that the older people and the band leaders … well, their paycheques come from the government. He who pays the piper, eh? Isn’t that what you guys say? Maybe elders like me aren’t the fighters we used to be. On top of that, the reserve’s project grants come from the government. If the band gets too uppity, it gets cut off. But the real cause is the old residential schools. They broke people’s will … They were jails.”

On September 8, 2007, Ontario appointed former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci to lead discussions between the province and Grassy Narrows over management of the forest. On June 6, 2008, while I was listening to the radio with Ivy, AbitibiBowater announced that it would stop using wood from Grassy and that it would seek to give up its logging licence in the contested Whisky Jack Forest. It is not yet clear whether the licence will be sold to Weyerhaeuser, the major remaining commercial consumer of wood from the area. As well, Ontario’s McGuinty government has proposed legislation to protect an area of the boreal forest half the size of California. While it is too early to say, the move may eventually prove a benefit to Grassy.

Could these events, after 50 years of hard times, be a victory? Will clear-cutting stop? Although it will never be the same, the forest will begin to return within the present children’s lifetime. But mercury will remain in the sediment of the rivers and lakes—no one knows for how long.

“Do you still eat fish?” I asked Ivy.

“Oh yeah.”

“Kids too?”

“They had a big fish fry at the school graduation.”

“How many people here do you think have been affected by the mercury?” Ivy gave me that sly look again and finally answered.


[Readers interested in learning more about Grassy Narrows can view a 1970 CBC report on the subject, also by Bob Rogers, here.]

Related Books

Diagnosis: Mercury—Money, Politics and Poison
Jane Hightower
Island Press
326 pages, harcover
ISBN 9781597263955

Bob Rodgers was an educator, writer, and filmmaker. Among numerous other projects, he produced and directed The Fiddlers of James Bay for the National Film Board of Canada and wrote the novel The Devil’s Party.