Sunday, 7 August 2011

Clear cutting our way of life: native testimony from Grassy Narrows -- 
by Tim Nafziger with Peter Haresnape

CPT delegates at Grassy Narrows
This article originally appeared in Christian Peacemaker Teams' newsletter Signs of the Times (Apr-Jun 2011) along with many other stories of CPT work around the world.

(* = names below have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Grassy Narrows First Nation, Ontario: As a child, Fred* followed the trap line with his family in the winter.  Then the Royal Canadian Mounted Police took him away from his family and placed him in a residential school where staff beat him if he spoke his language.

Over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in church-run residential schools.[6]  The first were established in the 1840s and the last one closed just 15 years ago in 1996.  Recorded mortality rates at these schools reached as high as 69% through a combination of poor nutrition, brutal discipline, disease, abuse and neglect.
Dryden pulp mill used mercury
Eventually, Fred was able to rejoin his family and return to his community’s traditional ways of hunting and fishing.  Then the Dryden Chemical Company dumped 9,000 kilos of mercury into the English River water system.  Consumption of mercury-contaminated fish over a sustained period causes permanent damage to the nervous system.  

Today Fred shows prominent signs of Minamata disease caused by severe mercury poisoning.  His symptoms include slurred speech, shaky hands and an unsteady walk. Many others in the community show symptoms as well, but only 38% receive any compensation.[1]

Jay* was walking home from school on the reserve one day when a driver pulled up and offered him a ride home.  But the car didn’t take him home.  It took him to a foster home.  It wasn’t until his mid-twenties that Jay finally got back home to Grassy Narrows.

Appalling as they are, these stories are neither isolated nor even unusual.  They point to the ongoing strategy of targeting children in a systemic process of destroying indigenous language, culture and identity.  As the residential school system began to decline, child welfare agencies increasingly relied on foster care as a means to this end.  In 1959, 1% of indigenous children were removed from their parents.  By the late 1960s, the rate was 30-40%.[2]  Today, indigenous children are three times more likely to be placed in state care than non-indigenous children.[3]

recent clearcut, from Amnesty report
Charles Wagamese of Grassy Narrows First Nation describes the foster care system as “clear-cutting” their way of life [4]  – undermining their culture through destroying intergenerational relationships just like intensive logging in the forest destroys whole ecosystems. [5]

Understanding the many layers of oppression that colonialism inflicts on communities like Grassy Narrows is a necessary part of standing in solidarity with them.  Learning this history is a first step in working to undo these oppressions.

[1] J. Rebick, "40 years later people at Grassy Narrows are still suffering mercury poisoning" Canadian Dimension blog 5 Jul 2010.
[2] E. Alston-O’Connor, "The Sixties Scoop", quoting Fournier and Crey, (1997) p. 83.
[3] "The Sixties Scoop: How Canada’s “Best Intentions” Proved Catastrophic", First Nations Drum (Mar 2009).
[4] Youtube video "The scars of mercury". See also
[5] Abitibi and Weyerhauser corporations have been clear-cutting the region's forests. See reports in No One is Illegal,; Amnesty International's open letter to Ontario premier (2008) and its report (2009) with photos of native teens blockading logging roads and the Trans-Canada highway.
[6] See and
(For the full story, read Trip reports of Christian Peacemaker Teams Kenora / Asubpeeschoseewagong (2009-2010) on the CPT website. After the 2010 road blockade, the province finally admitted "numerous concerns" and started land-use negotiations. The governments' game is endless delay. The province's negotiations drag on, while the government jails protesters and native elders. Ottawa for years delayed ratification of UNDRIP for "free, prior, and informed consent" with natives before issuing permits for mining etc, and has yet to take concrete action. Despite lip service, colonialist policies continue, with callous disregard for native rights. - Ed.)

1 comment:

Tracy Kirk said...

You said, "150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in church-run residential schools.[6] The first were established in the 1840s and the last one closed just 15 years ago in 1996."

I find some documentation of children being taken as early as 1656:
"September 3: The elders of the Onnontage were informed that if they wanted the French to dwell amongst them, as they requested, they must provide little girls to be placed with the Ursuline Mothers. The savages loved their children and the only way they could obtain slave children for the Church is to raid their neighbors.(
An earlier source of this information is "The Jesuit relations and allied documents : travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791 Index. Volume 73"

In the 1630s the Jesuits introduced corporal punishment (or whipping of children for discipline) among the natives of Canada.