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How a Lawsuit Could Turn Canada's First Nations' Relationship With Government Upside Down

After decades of abuse and neglect by the government, justice may be on the way for the Grassy Narrows community.
 
 
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On a cold December day nine years ago, a group of young people from the Grassy Narrows First Nation lay down in front of a line of logging trucks on a snow-covered road.

Chrissy Swain, now 32, recalls that day at Slant Lake, about an hour north of Kenora, Ontario, which set off what has become Canada’s longest-standing logging blockade. “Back then youth didn’t have a voice,” Swain says. “But people started taking us more seriously when we started the blockade.”

For a long time, Grassy Narrows was accustomed to not being heard. In the 1950s, new hydro dams flooded the low-lying river valleys the First Nation had lived in, driving away the fur-bearing animals and submerging wild rice beds and sacred spiritual sites. In the early 1960s, the Canadian federal government moved the small Grassy Narrows community away from the river to a new location on a small stagnant lake off the highway to Kenora, where Chrissy Swain and her friends grew up. The 1970s brought more devastating news: the nearby Dryden pulp and paper mill was pumping mercury into the water. It eradicated the local fishing industry, leaving the community poor and sick. Hunting and trapping came to replace fishing, but in the 1990s, the provincial government of Mike Harris opened the area to clear-cut logging, which quickly drove out moose and other animals on which the community relied.

Chrissy Swain’s grandfather was one of many people affected by mercury poisoning on the Grassy Narrows and White Dog reserves. Today he shakes uncontrollably and can barely walk. Swain was just 16 when she began to realize things weren’t as they should be in her community and decided to take action. Though Swain would share in spiritual ceremonies, pick wild berries, fish and hunt, she yearned for a traditional Anishinabe life of living off the land. “I lost out on that part of my identity,” she tells me.

Decades of neglect and abuse by two levels of government have left a grim legacy, in the form of joblessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and physical and sexual violence, all of which afflict Grassy Narrows still. But a number of factors have recently come together that offer hope. One of these is a recent legal decision that could protect the land from harmful industry activity that affects aboriginal hunting and trapping. The precedent doesn’t just herald an opportunity to regenerate a devastated natural environment—it has the potential to turn the entire relationship between Canada’s First Nations and federal government upside down.

Years of mercury poisoning and clear-cutting “put them into a corner where they had to take a serious stand on both those issues,” explains Treaty 3 Grand Chief Diane Kelly. Chief Kelly is the leader selected by national assembly to preside over the 140,000-square-kilometre treaty territory encompassing two First Nations in Manitoba and 26 in northwestern Ontario, including Grassy Narrows. She says Grassy Narrows is facing these challenges head on. “The people of Grassy Narrows have been really diligent in standing up for their rights.”

The way Chrissy Swain sees it, standing up for those rights is just part of providing for her children, like any working Canadian mother. She’s been bringing her three kids to demonstrations and blockades since they were babies. Since 2008, Swain has led annual walks to raise awareness about indigenous and environmental justice. The first was over 1,800 kilometres from Grassy Narrows to Toronto, ending in a “Sovereignty Sleepover” at Queen’s Park attended by hundreds of First Nations leaders and activists across Ontario. Her last walk took her to a sun dance in Manitoba. “It was only a 300 kilometre walk,” she says casually.

 
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