On the Grassy Narrows blockade, protestors await a breakthrough over fish and volleyball

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Grassy Narrows – we arrive at night and have difficulty finding the blockade. Deciding to wait until morning, we park in a field. Almost immediately, two male OPP officers arrive on the scene, shining lights in our faces and demanding identification. They imply that it isn’t safe to sleep here, although I can’t imagine a reserve of 1,000 people being rife with criminals. The officers insist they can escort us to the home of our contact in the community. It’s past 1 am and she has young children, so we decline, explaining that we don’t want to wake her, when one of the cops interjects. “They won’t mind,” he says. “These people go to bed late.” These people.

When we finally get to the blockade at Slant Lake, five kilometres north of the reserve, it turns out to be a low-key affair – three teepees, seven small cabins and a few tents. Considering the issues at stake – Abitibi and other companies are clear-cutting lands where the Grassy Narrows First Nations believes it has aboriginal title – it all seems so tame, this quiet camp-out where protestors gather every evening to play volleyball or talk. “They say (the forest) comes back,” says local Chrissy Swain, who takes us to a clear-cut from the early 1990s, “but you can see there’s still nothing.” She points to the smattering of skinny trees.

The almost casual nature of this protest contrasts with the harsh history of this Ojibway community. It has suffered relocation – to make way for a hydroelectric project – and the contamination of its English-Wabigoon River system by the Reed Paper Company mill in Dryden. Many citizens have Minamata disease, a life-threatening neurological condition, as a consequence. Recently a report from the United Nations Environment Programme suggests that the clearing of forests may be increasing the release of mercury into rivers.

At the encampment, a young woman from the Sandy Bay reserve in Manitoba is just finishing a four-day fast. She invites us into a teepee to share a feast of delicious caribou, fry bread, grilled cheese, rice and fresh blueberries. I can’t help wondering where the berries are from, as I do later at a fish fry about the mouth-watering fish. Minor worries for me, but a constant concern for residents.

The recommended fish intake is two to three per month, but I’ve seen people down 10 at one sitting. In a town with rampant unemployment, fish is an important source of food. Dr. Masazumi Harada, the Japanese researcher who first identified mercury problems at Grassy in the 1970s, returned last fall to examine 60 residents for symptoms.

The blockade may look calm to me, but some of the residents of nearby Kenora see it otherwise. One local paper, the Kenora Enterprise, has been busy making sensationalistic comparisons to the 1990 Oka standoff. Strange, since Grassy has no guns and no massive internal conflicts. When I call Mayor David Canfield of Kenora, where Abitibi has its mill, he speaks at length about the benefits of clear-cutting, emphasizing that newly planted trees offer animals more nutrients. Canfield says he is committed to “the cooperation and communication we now have with First Nations.’ He urges, “Get the government to the table.’

Finally, last week an MNR regional director was appointed to organize a meeting with the band chief and council about the logging situation. Deputy chief Steve Fobister, who himself is suffering from mercury-related illness, believes the blockade is not only about land and aboriginal title but about preserving the environment and economy for everyone.

The employment count at the Abitibi mill, he says, has gone from 1,900 to 150 over the years. “We have to become better stewards of the land – not just aboriginal people but all people,” says Fobister. “It’s not about Indians. It’s everybody’s problem.” I tend to agree, except this kind of suffering doesn’t typically happen to all of us. It happens to “these people.”

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