(Ed Ou/CBC), Gazing at the northern lights. 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 July, Lorenda started crowdsourcing a reward for information about the attack in the belief that police were ignoring the case. 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. “He’ll never be normal,” said Steve Fobister. The 22-year-old was in a coma for “It may not bring her back, but it’s our only way to cope with everyday life.”. The social crisis there intensified despite — some say because of — the good intentions of governments and "do-gooders," as described by reporter Keith Morrison. For people at Grassy Narrows, Azraya’s death raised an alarm about the mental health implications of the poisoning, and how it has affected community members who weren’t even born when the river was first contaminated. 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. “They’re never going to grow up normal,” Fobister said. The people of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) have already paid too-high a price for the contamination of their waters. 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. (Ed Ou/CBC). Grassy Narrows is an Ojibway First Nation band government who inhabit northern. 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. by mercury specialists. 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. 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). Dryden Chemical had dumped more than 20,000 pounds of mercury into the Wabigoon. It’s a dream his grandfather supports, even as he contemplates the fact that his grandson’s future will be tainted by mercury. Indigenous peoples have been victims of environmental racism for decades, with water quality and scarcity being one of the factors. More recent actions have included a blockade against logging that began in 2002 and continues to this day. (Ed Ou/CBC). (Ed Ou/CBC). was an altercation with a police officer outside the arena in Kenora, which was caught on video. There have been many battles — both public and private — during the decades of contamination at Grassy Narrows. Once ingested, mercury never goes away. 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. Candles flickered in the pink evening light, perfectly reflected Grassy Narrows, approximately 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, has a long history with unsafe drinking water. Since the government is technically not responsible for the water quality on Indigenous reserves, they do not feel obliged to solve the problem. Grassy Narrows. He is healthy, handsome and energetic, as yet unmarred by the mercury — but making the same demands for compensation he does today. “These past few generations, it has been getting worse for us,” said 17-year-old Chayna Loon. “They want to see things. 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. I don’t want them to turn towards the bad things, in bad places,” said Darwin, who heads the Grassy (Ed Ou/CBC), Kyra Sinclair, left, plays with her daughter while friends and family look on. 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. The government shipping bottles water to reserves is a short-term solution, so money, time, and effort need to be put towards long term solutions, such as cleaning the waterways to get rid of contaminants such as e-coli. hidden from her family, what hope is there of healing? 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. “Knowing Police and hospital officials refuse to answer questions about 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. They want to explore and I just want to make sure they have activities, things they want. It was denied, on the basis that it might interfere with a law enforcement matter, Residents in Grassy Narrows must use bottled water, because the tap water is unsafe to drink. 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. Indigenous peoples have been victims of environmental racism for decades, with water quality and scarcity being one of the factors. Research and Investigation. that [Calvin] went through that, it makes everybody sad. of poison, and the people from Grassy Narrows, who relied on the fish as a staple in their diet, were full of it, too. It’s a depressing Darwin has difficulty with his balance, and 10, 2020 Star Exclusive The community had been dealing with three boil water advisories, with some unable to use drinking water for seven years. It’s the youngsters Fobister worries about the most. Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle is the NDP candidate for Kenora.) Since the 1970s, the people of Grassy Narrows in Ontario, Canada, have fought for access to clean water. She was gone two days before a First Nations search team found her. While Judy DaSilva and Steve Fobister fought mainly for environmental justice, the battle for the next generation is largely about social justice. 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. Neither the companies, the governments nor the disability board has ever admitted The paper mill in Dryden, Ont., is located upstream from Grassy Narrows. Nearly 75 per cent of the claims sent which would prove the life of a teenager from Grassy Narrows has value. environment and because all we see is bad stuff. To this date, there is still no safe tap water They said that he had neurological problems and he died in a very sad way,” Fobister said. night she disappeared, how did police and hospital staff miss the signs and let her walk away? 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. Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace wanted help. when we started the blockade, but they heard the message.”. “We deserve to know the truth,” said Azraya’s friend Kyra Sinclair, who is 15. “Knowing how Calvin died, we could all be dying. (Ed Ou/CBC), People came from neighbouring First Nations to take part in the ceremonies. path.”, Girls in traditional Anishinaabe ribbon skirts head to a traditional ceremony. Traditionally, Ojibwe hunted large game for subsistence. Azraya’s aunt Lorenda Kokopenace said her son Christian was stabbed in the head last October, only hours after being released from police custody. But their vulnerability is equalled by their resilience. 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). the group carried homemade signs saying “Justice for Azraya.” They slowed traffic, demanding a coroner’s inquest. (Ed Ou/CBC), The song, which is yet unnamed, leans more toward contemporary dance music than traditional Anishinaabe drum songs. Grassy Narrows members don't have to use bottled water anymore. “It knocked me off my Asubpeechoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) has recently completed upgrades to its water treatment system. 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. When you talk to young people at Grassy Narrows, they tilt between despair and defiance. Bibliography. Young women sing an ethereal chorus over an electronic beat while Darwin and other young men rap verses with uplifting “What is there for the people that are crippled with mercury symptoms? Given these challenges, many people turned to alcohol to ease the pain of disability or idleness. He leans heavily Keewatin was held at the Kenora jail, where she went into medical distress. give me some level of comfort. Police had picked her up for public A former owner of the mill operated a chemical plant on the site that dumped 9,000 kg of mercury into the water in the 1960s and '70s. services only cover a fraction of the travel.”. The One of the reasons the water crisis on Indigenous reserves has not been addressed is because the government does not regulate the water quality on reserves, like the rest of Canada (Human Rights Watch, 2017). The fur trade economy transformed Ojibwe social organization and resource use. In Canada, there are 3 types of water advisories: Boil Water Advisories/Orders, Do Not Consume Advisories/Orders, and Do Not Use Advisories/Orders. Azraya’s grandmother, Mary Eliza Keewatin, died in police custody in 1999, at the age of 57. Solving the mystery of Azraya’s death has special urgency for young people in Grassy Narrows, who see her final days as the embodiment of an intergenerational tragedy unique to their community. 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. said the recent focus on remediating the river does not address the lingering issue of health care. A young, charismatic Steve Fobister appears in the documentary. Grassy Narrows: Community in crisis. 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. While thousands of Indigenous peoples are impacted by this injustice, many Canadians are unaware of the health concerns related to water contamination. “Mr. into their deaths recommended that police have better resources and training to understand the history of Grassy Narrows First Nation and deal more appropriately with community members when they find them in distress in Kenora. Azraya’s family and friends have been pushing for an inquest. It was a few weeks later that Azraya disappeared after police dropped her off at the hospital. Frustrated by the silence, the young people at Grassy Narrows are turning to music to raise awareness about Azraya’s death. and I just needed to let go of everything.”, Looking out over the lake in Grassy Narrows. The youngest generation at Grassy Narrows has never known a time before the poisoning. More than a year later, no one seems to know how she got there. The lucrative fishing tourism industry near Grassy Narrows also crashed as a result It's a critical point, because any death in custody in Ontario results in a mandatory inquest. This was news to Azraya’s family. “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. 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. (Ed Ou/CBC). Anishinaabe grandmothers sang a traditional mourning song, their drums echoing the rhythm of a heartbeat in the damp spring air. He also has problems with memory and concentration and suffers from extreme headaches. 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. Community members are pushing back against Ontario’s forestry regime because studies have shown that away into the woods. “I have so much to share. reserve. They are frightened, but manage to be champions for kids even younger than themselves. Water crisis in Indigenous Communities Across Canada . An inquest He said they need to understand that as Anishinaabe, they have a deep relationship with the land, and that “when we talk about But to get there, she said she needs what Azraya was seeking: a way to deal rare. “We seem to have forgotten that. Grassy Narrows members are welcoming safe drinking water in their community. Ontario to take action. 1,000 residents has affected three generations. It’s a world Azraya went in search of — a place her friends still want to believe exists. I suffer every day.”, Steve Fobister, sitting on the seat of his walker, lives with his daughter and grandchildren. 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. “We know the police don’t care about us,” she said. “I just want to be there for them. “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. of the poisoning, resulting in mass unemployment. (Ed Ou/CBC), A moment of levity in the studio. Two of his grandchildren, Darwin and Catherine, are “severely” affected by symptoms associated with mercury poisoning. One 15-year-old had been THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin … no inquest. After government scientists first confirmed the contamination in the 1970s, Ontario closed the commercial fishery in the English-Wabigoon River system. Jianne Turtle, 13, daughter of Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “should keep his promise” to address the mercury crisis. First, there Still, they fight. Violence and a distrust of police keep spreading. (Ed Ou/CBC). (Ed Ou/CBC). “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. Fobister receives $250 a month, the lowest amount granted through the Mercury Disability Board. 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. I want them to see there’s a future coming towards them.”. that anyone at Grassy Narrows has been poisoned — only that some people experience symptoms of Minamata disease. Azraya’s death marked a new chapter in this decades-old tragedy. 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. In the Neskantaga First Nation, undrinkable water is a crisis of health and faith. 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 Azraya's brother Braeden in a tender moment with his girlfriend, Paris Meekis. on a walker to shuffle through the tiny bungalow he shares with his daughter and her children. Anishinaabe Abinoojii Family Services, the First Nations child welfare agency that was involved with Azraya, is similarly silent. 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. (Ed Ou/CBC). In April, family and friends of Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace gathered in Kenora, Ont., for a vigil marking the first anniversary of her death. 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. Kenora in Ontario, Canada. 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 urge immediate action by the Federal government to repair, upgrade, and maintain Grassy Narrows’ drinking water system. And, critically, why couldn’t police find Azraya, when she was discovered just across the road from where they’d dropped her off? In the vacuum created by this lack of answers, Azraya’s parents are left to ponder the theory that their daughter died by suicide. A new study released today documents the very cost of ignoring the mercury crisis at Grassy Narrows. Our forthcoming print edition will further investigate the remediation plans of Dr. Rudd and his team. She was later declared dead in hospital. 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 Still, that future can be hard to see when your vision is clouded with tears. Jul. (Ed Ou/CBC). The pair were believed to have been high from sniffing gas. Narrows Youth Organization. The Wabigoon River has been sacred to the people of Grassy Narrows for generations. intoxication, but may have failed to notice she’d been injured. Did someone give her drugs or alcohol that contributed to her despair — and if so, are they culpable in her death? In addition to protesting their government, the community turned to more traditional means as well. I want to get the help I think I might need. But before that, she wants to get treatment for her alcohol dependency. They are killing us,” said the tired veteran of so many battles. Friends and family believe it was Azraya’s quest for help in dealing with her grief that led her to Kenora. WATER CRISIS. For almost 50 years, the people of Grassy Narrows have fought to make the government aware of their crisis. In addition, large patrilineal clans divide… September 17, 2019. 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 shot to death by her boyfriend; a 16-year-old classmate was charged with stabbing her boyfriend to death in self-defence; another 15-year-old had frozen to death walking home from a party. “They have to go to appointments in Winnipeg with a neurologist just about every month. Taking Action. The fish in the river were full “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. Then there’s the psychological stress of seeing your friends and family stricken with these problems. That’s when the trouble started. They migrated northward and westward during the late 17th and early 18th centuries in search of animals to supply the fur trade. 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. Their landbase is the 4145 ha English. It’s not clear whether a worker from Anishinaabe Abinoojii Family Services was with her at the hospital before she walked “I saw one kid that died in agony not so long ago. A recent health study demonstrates the depths of the health crisis experienced by the Grassy Narrows First Nation as the result of mercury poisoning, including learning disabilities and nervous system disorders among youth born long after the initial disaster. The federal government’s response underscores the severity of the water crisis, which extends far beyond Grassy Narrows. (Ed Ou/CBC), “When the land is exploited by industrial development, they are killing our medicines. 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. That’s all we believe in... bad stuff.”. 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 OPP won’t answer questions about the incident. But advocates say clear-cutting will mean more mercury in the water system — which has already poisoned 90 per cent of Grassy Narrows residents. This has eliminated all long-term drinking water advisories affecting the community. Medical If Azraya was suicidal the We seem to be following the money trail “I feel like the younger people are the ones who are going through a tougher time,” Chayna said. Even talking is a chore. Grassy Narrow’s fight for clean water began almost immediately after the discovery of mercury in the water. December 05, 2018. “People look at us as drunks and addicts and that’s not our fault, because we’ve grown up in a really bad feeling.”, Steve Fobister believes the clearest path to healing is for young people to reconnect with their culture. Early protests led to the arrival of the Japanese researchers, who established the human health consequences 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. (Ed Ou/CBC), A number of supporters marched through Kenora that day calling for an inquest into Azraya's death. blockade against logging on traditional territory. 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. Part of their challenge is understanding the role police played in Azraya’s final days. what happened that night. So Darwin Fobister and other youngsters have become activists in seeking the truth. Sixty-five-year-old Steve Fobister is among the hardest hit by the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. “I feel like the ceremonies heal us and me, especially,” she said. It often requires him to hold his lower jaw with his thumb to reduce the shaking long enough to form words. Cramped homes became scarred by violence, with teens regularly the victims. My research question began as: how might we treat the patients suffering from mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. There’s nothing.”, A Grassy Narrows member undergoes a medical assessment to determine the extent of mercury poisoning in his body. I actually felt wanted. Kyra Sinclair imagines living her life away from the toxic past in Grassy Narrows. 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. 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. We struggle to make those appointments. 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. 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. That, in turn, would give meaning to their own struggles. 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. Years of government inaction have resulted in the birth of generations of activists. Despite her disability, DaSilva has helped maintain the 15-year-old 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. That’s all anyone knows for sure. “Environmental racism has to stop,” DaSilva said. It’s not the right way I want to be. Ancestors of the northern Ojibwe are thought to have originally inhabited the north shore of the upper Great Lakes. to the board are denied, according to a 2014 report from the board’s chair. A sister that I loved and cared for,” said Azraya’s twin brother, Braeden Kokopenace, tears welling up in his eyes. All this came shortly after the community was relocated to a reserve, lured by the promise of better services, such as clean drinking water. The Journal Grassy Narrows: Community in crisis This clip from The Journal looks at the troubling violence, addiction and despair afflicting the tiny reserve town of Grassy Narrows, just north of Kenora, Ontario. 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. The federal government has not heeded that call. Azraya’s friends say it starts with winning the fight for an inquest into her death, But health services are limited to a small nursing station, and mental health counselling on the reserve is nearly non-existent. police are part of it.”. of the contamination. “I kind of resent the fact they’re going to spend money to do a cleanup. in the still lake nearby.

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