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Grassy Narrows: Marred by Mercury

Shooting in Grassy Narrows was a challenge, though it's easy enough to get to.  Just a flight to Winnipeg and then a two-hour drive across the Ontario border to Kenora.  From there, it's an hour north through scenery best described as classic Canadian Shield. There's only one fishing camp halfway up - otherwise it's just wilderness.
 
About 800 people live in 'Grassy' full time. There's no restaurant, no hotel, and only one small general store. The main store - also the grocery store, was found to have PCBs underneath, so it's now closed. Everyone drives into Kenora for groceries. People from here often make the trip to 'town' a few times every week. One person told me some weeks he goes every day.
 
For my two nights in Grassy, I decided to stay on the reserve instead of driving back and forth to Kenora each day.  The first night, I stayed in the basement room of a house belonging to a woman who lives in Kenora.  She rents it out occasionally.  That night, I had a visit from the owner's son.  At three in the morning.  He wanted to check me out. He told his friends that a reporter was staying in the basement, and wanted to make sure it was true. So he poked his head through the curtain of my room (no door) and said "So you're a reporter eh?"  Then he turned on the light and said "Let's take a look at you." Took me a while to fall back asleep.  I guess he hangs out at his mom's house instead of his own down the road.  A friend of his later told me they'd all been drinking upstairs.  I stayed somewhere else the next night.
 
As the piece I filed for The National showed, things are pretty bad in Grassy.  But there are some signs of hope.
 
One is Judy da Silva.  She was one of my contacts while in town.  I interviewed her while there, but didn't use the interview in my story.  I'll hopefully put some of that video online here soon.  Judy was born in Grassy, left for a while, and then returned in 1995.  She's married to a Caipo Indian from Southern Brazil. They have five kids, aged 6 to 15.
 
In 2002, Judy and a few others from the community were worried that logging was threatening the land around the reserve.  Clear-cutting is common in this part of Ontario, and Grassy locals heard logging was going to take place only three kilometres away from the community, so they set up a blockade on the logging road just north of the reserve.  The logging trucks tried to pass for a while, but were turned back.  They eventually stopped trying.  They now take another way into the forest.  The blockade is still there, though not much to look at anymore - just a sign next to the road and a few cabins. But it's now the longest-lasting blockade in Canadian history.
 
You might be asking, what does a roadblock have to do with mercury, the story I did, and which has been going on for the past forty years?   Judy da Silva says the mercury poisoning has caused them to lose so much in Grassy:  their health, one of their main sources of food, and the commercial fishing and guiding.  But they're tired of being victims. They feel the land is the one thing they have left, and the logging was threatening it.
 
But there's a direct connection to mercury, too.  Scientists say the erosion caused by clear-cutting increases the level of mercury in the run-off.  And the last thing they need in these parts is more mercury in the water.

Peter Wall is a videojournalist at The National.
Watch Peter's documentary "Mercury Danger Remains at Grassy Narrows" from Monday, April 5, 2010, at cbc.ca/video.
View a history of CBC coverage of mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows at CBC Digital Archives.
 
  

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