More than mercury: changing the narrative in Grassy Narrows

Sign entering Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation)

By Elizabeth McSheffrey

Community Journalism Trainer

When I told friends and family that I was moving to Grassy Narrows First Nation, their reaction usually went something like this: “Grassy Narrows… isn’t that the one with mercury poisoning?”

It pained me to confirm their suspicions as I packed my bags for northwestern Ontario.

Generations of Grassy Narrows residents have indeed suffered symptoms of mercury poisoning, ranging from basic learning disabilities to debilitating, and sometimes deadly, neurological damage.

Their plight is the result of industry carelessness, and successive provincial and federal governments failing to mitigate the ensuing health risks. Between 1962 and 1970, a pulp and paper company dumped 10 tonnes of mercury-laden waste into the water system that sustains Grassy Narrows, poisoning the fish — and through bioaccumulation — sickening many of those who consumed the fish, their children and their children’s children.

It is for this tragedy that Grassy has become one of the most visible, media-referenced First Nations in Canada, which explains the reaction of my family and friends. What a terrible thing to be known for, I thought, as I drove up the winding forest road to the reserve.

But after settling into my new home — a boreal haven for bald eagles, black bears, deer, and wolves — I was surprised how little its residents brought up mercury poisoning in our conversations.

Instead, they spoke about the community’s passion for volleyball, the hip-hop dancers they would be sending to Toronto this spring, and their annual ice fishing derby, which attracts anglers from the entire Lake of the Woods region. On Facebook, the chatter focused on creating a mechanics club for women, weekly bingo nights, and bake sales to support the high school sports teams.

There’s much more to Grassy than mercury, I thought, and it’s clear that the community doesn’t define itself that way. So why should the rest of Canada?

Over the next few months, I hope my work will help change our perceptions about this community through Indigenous-led stories that empower — not victimize — the people of Grassy, also known as Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation.

***

As I write this, I’m sitting in the small corner office of the library at Sakatcheway Anishinabe School, which educates Grassy youth from Kindergarten to Grade 12. It’s a lively place, whose hallways are decorated with student artwork and traditional Ojibway teachings.

Each classroom has a pet: a hamster, fish or gecko, depending on the grade level. There are after-school programs for sewing, yoga, knitting and dance, and outdoor education classes that bring the students out on the land to trap, fish, and camp.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to add journalism to the list of after-school options. When I tell Elders, parents and teachers about the Indigenous Reporters Program, almost every single one of them has been quick to offer the name of a talented local storyteller who knows their way around a camera, loves poetry, or is interested in creative writing.

A group of students at Sakatcheway Anishinabe School listen to Jennifer Hollett, head of news at Twitter Canada, on how to share their stories on the social media platform on March 28.

One of such  youngster is 12-year-old Lexx Paul, a keen photographer who just this week, had his work published in the Kenora Daily-Miner newspaper in partnership with the program. He took a photo of Jennifer Hollett, head of news at Twitter Canada, as she gave a workshop on social media storytelling in Grassy on March 28th.

I’ve already promised that in the summer he and I will drive around the community to learn more about outdoor photography and broaden his options for photo subjects.

In a community forum I held earlier this month, people of all ages told me they’re interested in improving their writing skills, diversifying their career options, and learning radio and television reporting. They agreed that Grassy should tell its own stories — a sentiment echoed in conversations at a community health meeting on mercury a few days later, when calls started coming in from outside news outlets.

It will take time to change the media narrative of what goes on in Grassy Narrows, but with enthusiastic participation from Lexx and other talented people like him, I’m confident that change will come.

A tweet Lexx Paul would like to share.

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