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Rays of hope in Grassy Narrows

The Story

Poison is still in their blood. But, for the first time in many years, hope is in their hearts. Grassy Narrows residents are healing the wounds that sent the reserve into a downward spiral of violence, suicide and substance abuse. A year ago, after bitter debate, they voted to completely ban alcohol from the community. "Crisis workers" patrol the reserve heading off potential trouble and enforcing a curfew. Some residents started a new neighbourhood away from troublemakers. It wasn't easy. Before the vote to make the reserve dry, band councillor Fred Land rounded up nine children of alcoholic families. On live community television, they begged their parents to vote for the booze ban. He recalls one little girl looking into the camera and begging her parents: "Stop drinking so I could come home." 

Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning
Broadcast Date: Nov. 24, 1985
Guests: Steve Fobister, Sharon Fobister, Fred Land, Arnold Pelly
Reporter: Bernadette Hardaker
Duration: 9:18

Did You know?

• Grassy Narrows had had previous alcohol bans. The difference this time was that residents enforced it by policing each other, sometimes forcefully breaking up parties and dumping out bottles.

• The bands started legal action against the polluting company in 1977 but put it on hold in favour of mediation. Compensation talks started in 1978 but broke down after five years. Following the federal Conservative election win in 1984, federal Indian Affairs Minister David Crombie appointed Emmett Hall, a retired Supreme Court judge, as special mediator tasked with finally brokering a deal.

• While life improved on the reserve, social problems didn't go away. Grassy Narrows was thrust into the national spotlight again in 1991. Thomas Pahpasay was caught after a three-day manhunt sparked by his fatal shooting of one OPP officer and the wounding of two others. Police said Pahpasay was high from sniffing gas fumes at the time of the shooting. A band councilor told CBC Television news that sniffing remained a serious problem.

• Cree living on the shores of James Bay faced a similar struggle with mercury contamination. Unsafe levels of the heavy metal were detected in fish there in 1969. A Native-run fishing company was shut down that year. Mercury levels in residents' blood rose through the 1980s but then dropped significantly, apparently because of education about safe eating habits.


Mercury Rising: The Poisoning of Grassy Narrows more