which would prove the life of a teenager from Grassy Narrows has value. If Azraya was suicidal the Despite her disability, DaSilva has helped maintain the 15-year-old She died nearby. They want to explore and I just want to make sure they have activities, things they want. The It often requires him to hold his lower jaw with his thumb to reduce the shaking long enough to form words. Darwin has difficulty with his balance, and It’s a world Azraya went in search of — a place her friends still want to believe exists. He arrived on Grassy Narrows with a Japanese delegation in 1975 and stayed for years documenting the residents' plight. But health services are limited to a small nursing station, and mental health counselling on the reserve is nearly non-existent. “I’m losing myself, I can feel it. Given these challenges, many people turned to alcohol to ease the pain of disability or idleness. Azraya’s death marked a new chapter in this decades-old tragedy. When you talk to young people at Grassy Narrows, they tilt between despair and defiance. She was gone two days before a First Nations search team found her. Azraya’s last interactions were with Ontario Provincial Police in Kenora and possibly staff at the hospital, where police say they dropped her off two days earlier. Anishinaabe Abinoojii Family Services, the First Nations child welfare agency that was involved with Azraya, is similarly silent. It’s a depressing A letter from Chief Rudy Turtle says tap water is safe to use again. If that is the case, there are questions her father, Marlin Kokopenace, wants answered. I want them to see there’s a future coming towards them.”. Candles flickered in the pink evening light, perfectly reflected “It knocked me off my December 05, 2018. The 15-year-old dropped out of school after Azraya’s death. now.”, Darwin Fobister, Steve's grandson, has difficulty with his balance, problems with memory and concentration and suffers from extreme headaches. “We are not expendable and we are important to the world and our children have to feel that.” She said teenagers in Grassy Narrows today were “just babies Azraya’s parents, Christa Ackabee and Marlin Kokopenace, had arrived with a small group that marched through the streets of Kenora in the hope that the anniversary would add weight to their call for answers. Grassy Narrows leaders marched alongside hundreds of supporters through downtown Toronto to demand action amid the ongoing mercury poisoning crisis in the northern Ontario First Nation. We probably are, already, and we don’t know what’s going to happen because nobody is helping,” said Chayna Loon, one of Azraya’s cousins. CBC News filed a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to get more details about Azraya’s case. In July, Lorenda started crowdsourcing a reward for information about the attack in the belief that police were ignoring the case. (Ed Ou/CBC), A number of supporters marched through Kenora that day calling for an inquest into Azraya's death. “I feel like the younger people are the ones who are going through a tougher time,” Chayna said. Grassy Narrows members don't have to use bottled water anymore. Still, that future can be hard to see when your vision is clouded with tears. often has the sensation that he’s going to fall forward. when we started the blockade, but they heard the message.”. “She was a nice, innocent, sweet girl. Photos by Ed Ou. It was a few weeks later that Azraya disappeared after police dropped her off at the hospital. Medical I urge immediate action by the Federal government to repair, upgrade, and maintain Grassy Narrows’ drinking water system. “I feel like the ceremonies heal us and me, especially,” she said. This past April, on the first anniversary of her death, Azraya’s parents attended a vigil and wept quietly by the tree where their daughter’s body was discovered. The disability board was established in 1986 as part of a court settlement with Ontario and Canada and the two paper companies involved in the contamination. The federal government has not heeded that call. “I feel like we have not been able to accommodate the people that are sick,” said Fobister. Sixty-five-year-old Steve Fobister is among the hardest hit by the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. Steve Fobister is among the select few who have received any compensation at all; Azraya’s brother Calvin also got some money before he died. Narrows Youth Organization. After government scientists first confirmed the contamination in the 1970s, Ontario closed the commercial fishery in the English-Wabigoon River system. Part of their challenge is understanding the role police played in Azraya’s final days. Azraya’s grandmother, Mary Eliza Keewatin, died in police custody in 1999, at the age of 57. Two of his grandchildren, Darwin and Catherine, are “severely” affected by symptoms associated with mercury poisoning. It’s not clear whether a worker from Anishinaabe Abinoojii Family Services was with her at the hospital before she walked “We’re trying to fight and we’re trying to save I’m kind of struggling after losing Azraya,” she said. “Ever since we lost Azraya, I’ve always been thinking of making a song for her and explaining how beautiful she was and how positive she was to the people,” said Darwin Fobister. The pair were believed to have been high from sniffing gas. Our forthcoming print edition will further investigate the remediation plans of Dr. Rudd and his team. “This really is a litmus test around government's commitment to addressing the water crisis in Indigenous communities,” said Moola. The Problem. of the contamination. I actually felt wanted. Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, said, “The latest community health study on the Grassy Narrows First Nation is an indictment of the appalling history of government inaction and indifference. Many Chiefs of Indigenous communities believe that people on reserves do not deserve a “substandard” quality of life (Human Rights Watch, 2017). the land because that’s who we are.”, Steve Fobister said he tries to impart his traditional knowledge and Anishinaabe worldview in his conversations with Darwin. That’s all we believe in... bad stuff.”. The Grassy Narrows story. three days. “If the government says no, just like that, I’d fight like hell to demand that I have it my way, even if I have to lay my life on the line,” said the then-31-year-old Fobister. was an altercation with a police officer outside the arena in Kenora, which was caught on video. reserve. give me some level of comfort. This has eliminated all long-term drinking water advisories affecting the community. (Ed Ou/CBC), Kyra Sinclair, left, plays with her daughter while friends and family look on. Half a century after mercury contamination near Grassy Narrows First Nation, the poisoning continues to have deadly consequences — especially for youth, By Jody Porter We seem to be following the money trail Traditional healers were invited to the community by Judy DaSilva, a 55-year-old grandmother whose mercury-related mobility issues sometimes require her to use a wheelchair. Police had picked her up for public blockade against logging on traditional territory. “Mr. He leans heavily “My sister was too young to go at this time and I believe “People look at us as drunks and addicts and that’s not our fault, because we’ve grown up in a really bad “I kind of resent the fact they’re going to spend money to do a cleanup. IPSM started out as the Friends of Grassy Narrows in 2003 and since branched into a broadly-focused solidarity group that also looks at other communities’ issues such as fracking, the Tar sands (Caine 2012), the Keystone Pipeline, oil spills, Sun Peaks’ development in British Columbia, and water contamination. A spokesperson for Ontario Provincial Police told CBC News that no internal investigations have resulted from any officer's conduct involving Azraya, but wouldn't say if the teen was in custody on the night she disappeared. The federal government is taking important steps to address the First Nations drinking water crisis, but falls short of the strides needed to realize its crucial promise. Bibliography. In addition, large patrilineal clans divide… (Ed Ou/CBC). Residents in Grassy Narrows must use bottled water, because the tap water is unsafe to drink. Jul. I hope more of the young people would do the same.”. “He might just end up being like me, not being able to walk and not being able to provide for myself the daily routine it requires to be normal. Community members are pushing back against Ontario’s forestry regime because studies have shown that But Steve Fobister In addition, “Canada is one of the most water-rich countries in the world”, which is why it is shocking that the issue is occurring in the first place (Human Rights Watch, 2017). “We deserve to know the truth,” said Azraya’s friend Kyra Sinclair, who is 15. These advisories vary in terms of how restricting the rules are regarding drinking the water on reserves. A new study released today documents the very cost of ignoring the mercury crisis at Grassy Narrows. The man who discovered Azraya said she appeared to have died by suicide, but her family says they have not received a copy of her autopsy report. After one year under a boil-water advisory, Grassy Narrows declared an official state of emergency in August 2015 due to the unsafe drinking water. Their landbase is the 4145 ha English. 1970: The government of Ontario closes the Wabigoon-English river system commercial fishery, removing one of the primary sources of income for residents of Grassy Narrows. As of January 2016, drinking water advisories were in effect in 85 First Nations communities across Canada, with the majority in Ontario. (Ed Ou/CBC). Young women sing an ethereal chorus over an electronic beat while Darwin and other young men rap verses with uplifting Ancestors of the northern Ojibwe are thought to have originally inhabited the north shore of the upper Great Lakes. The fish in the river were full Her death has become an emblem of the social devastation that followed the environmental destruction at Grassy Narrows, leaving many to wonder: If a child’s plea for help can go unanswered and the details of her death can remain (Ed Ou/CBC), Gazing at the northern lights. On the anniversary of Azraya’s death, the Lake of the Woods District Hospital issued a statement expressing condolences, but like police, officials there refused to answer any questions about what happened the night she walked away (Ed Ou/CBC). The fur trade shifted this practice toward trapping smaller animals and trading their furs. Led by Darwin Fobister, they hope to release a music video on social media this fall that will pressure The youngest generation at Grassy Narrows has never known a time before the poisoning. The disease is named for the Japanese town where more than 100 people died after eating fish contaminated with mercury released into a lake by a chemical plant in the 1950s. When Azraya was struggling with her brother Calvin’s death, she asked her parents to put her in the care of a child welfare agency in Kenora so she could receive counselling. Chief Rudy Turtle says they got $5.2 million from Indigenous Services Canada and $1 million dollars from the province, so they could lift boil water advisories that had been in place for seven years since 2013, as well as extend service to new parts of the community. In it, she is being held to the ground by the burly male officer, begging to go home. There have been many battles — both public and private — during the decades of contamination at Grassy Narrows. A young, charismatic Steve Fobister appears in the documentary. The 22-year-old was in a coma for no inquest. Asubpeechoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) has recently completed upgrades to its water treatment system. “He’ll never be normal,” said Steve Fobister. He also has problems with memory and concentration and suffers from extreme headaches. Between 1962 and 1970, the Wabigoon river an important freshwater resource in Northwestern Ontario and a major source of food supply for the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations was poisoned when a pulp and paper mill discharged 20, 000 tons of mercury into the river with the permission of the Ontario government. A week later, when CBC asked why the family had not been informed of the decision, the coroner’s office had a new answer: Azraya’s case would be reviewed by an internal inquest advisory committee in September. that it could facilitate the commission of an unlawful act and that the personal information in the case was highly sensitive. environment and because all we see is bad stuff. (Ed Ou/CBC), A moment of levity in the studio. While thousands of Indigenous peoples are impacted by this injustice, many Canadians are unaware of the health concerns related to water contamination. After decades of delay and mounting pressure from First Nations and environmental groups, the Ontario government announced in June that it would spend $85 million to clean up the mercury in the English-Wabigoon River. For years, Canada did not understand the harsh reality and extent of the problem. “Environmental racism has to stop,” DaSilva said. I suffer every day.”, Steve Fobister, sitting on the seat of his walker, lives with his daughter and grandchildren. They are frightened, but manage to be champions for kids even younger than themselves. from the facility. “We seem to have forgotten that. Azraya’s friends believe her death was tied to her despair over the loss of her older brother Calvin, who died from mercury poisoning in 2014. For almost 50 years, the people of Grassy Narrows have fought to make the government aware of their crisis. Azraya’s friends and family say that finding answers about how she died will help get young people in Grassy Narrows back on track. The federal government’s response underscores the severity of the water crisis, which extends far beyond Grassy Narrows. The people of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) have already paid too-high a price for the contamination of their waters. But before that, she wants to get treatment for her alcohol dependency. hidden from her family, what hope is there of healing? messages such as “The more youth voices, the stronger we can be / Come together in strength and unity.”. In the 1960s and ‘70s, industrial pollution contaminated the water in Grassy Narrows (Asubpeeschoseewagong) with mercury, making it one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters. All this came shortly after the community was relocated to a reserve, lured by the promise of better services, such as clean drinking water. (Ed Ou/CBC). Clean, drinkable water is a human right, that many Indigenous communities across Canada do not have access to: “Bills or no bills, access to water is necessary for human life and it should not be possible to simply deny it to anyone” (Vowel, 2016). “I felt like I was needed there. (Ed Ou/CBC). We just want something done and to move forward.”, Chayna Loon in the make-shift recording studio set up in the Trapper's Lodge in Grassy Narrows. He plans to go to college and return to Grassy Narrows to help other young people express themselves in song. While Judy DaSilva and Steve Fobister fought mainly for environmental justice, the battle for the next generation is largely about social justice. It’s the youngsters Fobister worries about the most. More recent actions have included a blockade against logging that began in 2002 and continues to this day. (Ed Ou/CBC). On April 17, 2016, Azraya was found dead in a wooded area just across the road from Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora, Ont., 90 kilometres south of Grassy Narrows. However, now that promises have been made, to help Grassy Narrows, among other communities, the government needs to be held accountable to keep their promises. And, critically, why couldn’t police find Azraya, when she was discovered just across the road from where they’d dropped her off? THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin … They migrated northward and westward during the late 17th and early 18th centuries in search of animals to supply the fur trade. path.”, Girls in traditional Anishinaabe ribbon skirts head to a traditional ceremony. Grassy Narrows’ fight for clean water is a struggle for environmental justice ... Mercury contamination has triggered an ecological crisis that has devastated the local environment and community members’ health to this day. 1,000 residents has affected three generations. I felt happy being there but at the same time I was crying so bad because I just felt so overwhelmed the group carried homemade signs saying “Justice for Azraya.” They slowed traffic, demanding a coroner’s inquest. Police and hospital officials refuse to answer questions about In the vacuum created by this lack of answers, Azraya’s parents are left to ponder the theory that their daughter died by suicide. This was news to Azraya’s family. I want to get the help I think I might need. Violence and a distrust of police keep spreading. The criteria for compensation was established as part of the court settlement in 1985 and remains unchanged, despite three decades of research by the Japanese scientists. In the 1960s and ‘70s, industrial pollution contaminated the water in Grassy Narrows (Asubpeeschoseewagong) with mercury, making it one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters. in the still lake nearby. She wants to go back so she can graduate and make a better life for herself and her baby daughter. Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle is the NDP candidate for Kenora.) Azraya’s family and friends have been pushing for an inquest. 1969-70: High levels of mercury are discovered in the water and fish downriver from the plant. We struggle to make those appointments. “I just want to be there for them. Early protests led to the arrival of the Japanese researchers, who established the human health consequences Water crisis in Indigenous Communities Across Canada . Friends and family believe it was Azraya’s quest for help in dealing with her grief that led her to Kenora. “Knowing how Calvin died, we could all be dying. “I have so much to share. All rights reserved. To this date, there is still no safe tap water (Ed Ou/CBC). That’s when the trouble started. clear-cutting could release even more mercury into the environment. away into the woods. on a walker to shuffle through the tiny bungalow he shares with his daughter and her children. They’ve never lived in a community where jobs are plentiful and disabilities services only cover a fraction of the travel.”. what happened that night. Ninety per cent of the population in Grassy Narrows experiences symptoms of mercury poisoning, which include neurological problems ranging from numbness in fingers and toes to seizures and cognitive delays, according to a recent study Anishinaabe grandmothers sang a traditional mourning song, their drums echoing the rhythm of a heartbeat in the damp spring air. (Ed Ou/CBC), ©2017 CBC/Radio-Canada. Dryden Chemical had dumped more than 20,000 pounds of mercury into the Wabigoon. Taking Action. In Canada, there are 3 types of water advisories: Boil Water Advisories/Orders, Do Not Consume Advisories/Orders, and Do Not Use Advisories/Orders. In 1983, a CBC documentary declared Grassy Narrows a community “on the verge of collapse.” It showed a picture of the Grade 8 class that year, and detailed the horrific fate of some of the students. Through my research, I learned that the government had promised a $170,000 to fund a study for a long-term mercury treatment center in 2017, and $4.5 billion to fund the treatment centre, that should have begun in 2017 (Snyder, 2019). It was denied, on the basis that it might interfere with a law enforcement matter, with her grief. Neither the companies, the governments nor the disability board has ever admitted Azraya's brother Braeden in a tender moment with his girlfriend, Paris Meekis. The fur trade economy transformed Ojibwe social organization and resource use. I want to help because nobody deserves to go through what’s going on.”, Azraya's friend Chayna Loon, second from right, takes part in a sacred ceremony. I don’t want them to turn towards the bad things, in bad places,” said Darwin, who heads the Grassy So Darwin Fobister and other youngsters have become activists in seeking the truth. “They have to go to appointments in Winnipeg with a neurologist just about every month. The water crisis in this Northern Ontario First Nations once again exposes the failure by the federal government to provide access to safe and clean water to First Nations. My research question began as: how might we treat the patients suffering from mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. Thousands of people in First Nations communities across Canada continue to live without access to clean drinking water. of the poisoning, resulting in mass unemployment. Grassy Narrow’s fight for clean water began almost immediately after the discovery of mercury in the water. Operates a self government and is responsible for the day to day operations of the First Nation Community members conduct most shopping and business affairs in the city of Kenora Provides a community store called JB's Store which also serves as the Canada It’s not the right way I want to be. Grassy Narrows is an Ojibway First Nation band government who inhabit northern. in most homes at Grassy Narrows. It’s a dream his grandfather supports, even as he contemplates the fact that his grandson’s future will be tainted by mercury. to the board are denied, according to a 2014 report from the board’s chair. The OPP won’t answer questions about the incident. Even talking is a chore. The Trudeau government has promised to end drinking water advisories in over 100 First Nations by 2021, but the solutions so far have stopped at short-term, Band-Aid fixes. The payment “doesn’t even meet my nutritional needs,” said Fobister. More than a year later, no one seems to know how she got there. that [Calvin] went through that, it makes everybody sad. One 15-year-old had been The contamination in this community of about An inquest Frustrated by the silence, the young people at Grassy Narrows are turning to music to raise awareness about Azraya’s death. Fobister receives $250 a month, the lowest amount granted through the Mercury Disability Board. the environment, we are the environment. Keewatin was held at the Kenora jail, where she went into medical distress. Japanese scientists have been studying people at Grassy Narrows and neighbouring Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) First Nation for decades, and in 2014 urged the federal government to provide care and financial support to every resident in the (Ed Ou/CBC), The song, which is yet unnamed, leans more toward contemporary dance music than traditional Anishinaabe drum songs. (Ed Ou/CBC). We are the caretakers.”, Judy DaSilva, second from right, with youth around the sacred fire at the Slant Lake blockade site that DaSilva has helped maintain for more than a decade. River 21 Indian Reserve. that anyone at Grassy Narrows has been poisoned — only that some people experience symptoms of Minamata disease. (Ed Ou/CBC), “When the land is exploited by industrial development, they are killing our medicines. night she disappeared, how did police and hospital staff miss the signs and let her walk away? “I want the youth to see there’s a greater thing they can turn to. (Ed Ou/CBC), Azraya's father, Marlin Kokopenace, far left, her mother, Christa Ackabee, second from left, and her brother Braeden, holding the sign, were in Kenora that day. “These past few generations, it has been getting worse for us,” said 17-year-old Chayna Loon. There’s nothing.”, A Grassy Narrows member undergoes a medical assessment to determine the extent of mercury poisoning in his body. Grassy Narrows, approximately 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, has a long history with unsafe drinking water. “It may not bring her back, but it’s our only way to cope with everyday life.”. Years of government inaction have resulted in the birth of generations of activists. Water Canada has provided ongoing coverage of Grassy Narrows’ struggle to remediate their watershed and gain recognition and support from government and public institutions with respect to their crisis. Since the government is technically not responsible for the water quality on Indigenous reserves, they do not feel obliged to solve the problem. Azraya took it the worst.”. Ontario to take action. feeling.”, Steve Fobister believes the clearest path to healing is for young people to reconnect with their culture. The water tower is seen on the Grassy Narrows First Nation reserve in northwestern Ontario on Friday, May 18, 2018. The girl with the bright smile had just turned 14 when she left her family in Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario last spring in search of someone — or something — to ease her overwhelming grief. “I’ve been in really dark places,” said Kyra Sinclair, “and I don’t want our younger generations to ever feel like that.”, Grassy Narrows youth enjoying the outdoors. Keewatin’s two sons, Elvis, 24, and Morris, 29, died in 1992 while trying to swim to shore after police took their boat, leaving them stranded on an island. During the 1960s and early ‘70s, the chemical plant at the Reed Paper mill in Dryden, Ont., which is upstream of Grassy Narrows, dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River. intoxication, but may have failed to notice she’d been injured. “I can’t afford anything that would A CBC report noted that the community’s water plant was more than 10 years old and had never functioned properly, but the First Nation could not afford to fix it since no funding was available from the federal government at the time. “Knowing Darwin hopes his work on the video will not only rally support but also help him grow into a career producing music. More. two communities affected by mercury. But to get there, she said she needs what Azraya was seeking: a way to deal Still, they fight. September 17, 2019. “She meant so much to this whole Research and Investigation. Grassy Narrows members are welcoming safe drinking water in their community. Indigenous peoples have been victims of environmental racism for decades, with water quality and scarcity being one of the factors. “They’re never going to grow up normal,” Fobister said. But their vulnerability is equalled by their resilience. Indigenous peoples have been victims of environmental racism for decades, with water quality and scarcity being one of the factors. But advocates say clear-cutting will mean more mercury in the water system — which has already poisoned 90 per cent of Grassy Narrows residents. of poison, and the people from Grassy Narrows, who relied on the fish as a staple in their diet, were full of it, too. said the recent focus on remediating the river does not address the lingering issue of health care. Kyra Sinclair imagines living her life away from the toxic past in Grassy Narrows. He is healthy, handsome and energetic, as yet unmarred by the mercury — but making the same demands for compensation he does today. It “bioaccumulates,” meaning it passes from one generation to the next, from mother to child, through the placenta. Despite his physical challenges, 20-year-old Darwin Fobister has worked to organize enjoyable diversions for the kids, like going swimming or to the movies. In July, the provincial coroner’s office told CBC News that its investigation was complete but that its reports would not be made public and that there would be Nearly 75 per cent of the claims sent In April, family and friends of Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace gathered in Kenora, Ont., for a vigil marking the first anniversary of her death. Kenora in Ontario, Canada. Some of the people in Chayna Loon said she found a deeper connection to her heritage in April when she took part in traditional Anishinaabe healing ceremonies on the same weekend as the anniversary of Azraya’s death. That, in turn, would give meaning to their own struggles. Azraya’s aunt Lorenda Kokopenace said her son Christian was stabbed in the head last October, only hours after being released from police custody. Due to the high number of reserves experiencing 1 or more of these advisories, people have spent their whole lives without clean water, therefore having to drink from water bottles shipped from the government (Human Rights Watch, 2017). Then there’s the psychological stress of seeing your friends and family stricken with these problems. Reports show that water in the community is still not safe to drink, even after boiling. There is no help. Cramped homes became scarred by violence, with teens regularly the victims. “They want to see things. In the Neskantaga First Nation, undrinkable water is a crisis of health and faith. , Gazing at the hospital the very cost of ignoring the mercury poisoning in his...., with some unable to use again in a community where jobs are plentiful disabilities... 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