(Ed Ou/CBC). “We deserve to know the truth,” said Azraya’s friend Kyra Sinclair, who is 15. The 22-year-old was in a coma for Despite her disability, DaSilva has helped maintain the 15-year-old that it could facilitate the commission of an unlawful act and that the personal information in the case was highly sensitive. 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. A letter from Chief Rudy Turtle says tap water is safe to use again. Indigenous peoples have been victims of environmental racism for decades, with water quality and scarcity being one of the factors. to the board are denied, according to a 2014 report from the board’s chair. “My sister was too young to go at this time and I believe Through my research, I learned that the government had promised a $170,000 to fund a study for a long-term mercury treatment center in 2017, and $4.5 billion to fund the treatment centre, that should have begun in 2017 (Snyder, 2019). The contamination in this community of about They said that he had neurological problems and he died in a very sad way,” Fobister said. “I have so much to share. the land because that’s who we are.”, Steve Fobister said he tries to impart his traditional knowledge and Anishinaabe worldview in his conversations with Darwin. path.”, Girls in traditional Anishinaabe ribbon skirts head to a traditional ceremony. Grassy Narrows members don't have to use bottled water anymore. now.”, Darwin Fobister, Steve's grandson, has difficulty with his balance, problems with memory and concentration and suffers from extreme headaches. Home. Ancestors of the northern Ojibwe are thought to have originally inhabited the north shore of the upper Great Lakes. clear-cutting could release even more mercury into the environment. 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. And, critically, why couldn’t police find Azraya, when she was discovered just across the road from where they’d dropped her off? feeling.”, Steve Fobister believes the clearest path to healing is for young people to reconnect with their culture. 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. often has the sensation that he’s going to fall forward. The water tower is seen on the Grassy Narrows First Nation reserve in northwestern Ontario on Friday, May 18, 2018. I want to get the help I think I might need. Still, that future can be hard to see when your vision is clouded with tears. “I feel like the ceremonies heal us and me, especially,” she said. 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. (Ed Ou/CBC), A moment of levity in the studio. The payment “doesn’t even meet my nutritional needs,” said Fobister. Police had picked her up for public The fish in the river were full “She was a nice, innocent, sweet girl. They migrated northward and westward during the late 17th and early 18th centuries in search of animals to supply the fur trade. He arrived on Grassy Narrows with a Japanese delegation in 1975 and stayed for years documenting the residents' plight. 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. “Mr. Reports show that water in the community is still not safe to drink, even after boiling. 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. 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. It was a few weeks later that Azraya disappeared after police dropped her off at the hospital. He is healthy, handsome and energetic, as yet unmarred by the mercury — but making the same demands for compensation he does today. Keewatin was held at the Kenora jail, where she went into medical distress. Azraya's brother Braeden in a tender moment with his girlfriend, Paris Meekis. The Grassy Narrows story. She died nearby. Jianne Turtle, 13, daughter of Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “should keep his promise” to address the mercury crisis. in most homes at Grassy Narrows. The In April, family and friends of Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace gathered in Kenora, Ont., for a vigil marking the first anniversary of her death. It's a critical point, because any death in custody in Ontario results in a mandatory inquest. 1970: The government of Ontario closes the Wabigoon-English river system commercial fishery, removing one of the primary sources of income for residents of Grassy Narrows. Grassy Narrows. environment and because all we see is bad stuff. 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 I don’t want them to turn towards the bad things, in bad places,” said Darwin, who heads the Grassy That’s all anyone knows for sure. But advocates say clear-cutting will mean more mercury in the water system — which has already poisoned 90 per cent of Grassy Narrows residents. Azraya’s friends say it starts with winning the fight for an inquest into her death, 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. September 17, 2019. Medical She was gone two days before a First Nations search team found her. Tragedy runs deep in Azraya’s family, and police have typically had some involvement in it. Grassy Narrows Water Crisis Kiera, Robyn, Ashley, Christiana About Grassy Narrows Where Is Grassy Narrows? But to get there, she said she needs what Azraya was seeking: a way to deal messages such as “The more youth voices, the stronger we can be / Come together in strength and unity.”. 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. Taking Action. (Ed Ou/CBC), Azraya's father, Marlin Kokopenace, far left, her mother, Christa Ackabee, second from left, and her brother Braeden, holding the sign, were in Kenora that day. 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 people of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) have already paid too-high a price for the contamination of their waters. It’s not the right way I want to be. Community members are pushing back against Ontario’s forestry regime because studies have shown that Young women sing an ethereal chorus over an electronic beat while Darwin and other young men rap verses with uplifting The social crisis there intensified despite — some say because of — the good intentions of governments and "do-gooders," as described by reporter Keith Morrison. They are frightened, but manage to be champions for kids even younger than themselves. The pair were believed to have been high from sniffing gas. “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. “It knocked me off my (Ed Ou/CBC). Friends and family believe it was Azraya’s quest for help in dealing with her grief that led her to Kenora. It was denied, on the basis that it might interfere with a law enforcement matter, Their landbase is the 4145 ha English. 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. Then there’s the psychological stress of seeing your friends and family stricken with these problems. “I just want to be there for them. Candles flickered in the pink evening light, perfectly reflected with her grief. “I want the youth to see there’s a greater thing they can turn to. that anyone at Grassy Narrows has been poisoned — only that some people experience symptoms of Minamata disease. Grassy Narrow’s fight for clean water began almost immediately after the discovery of mercury in the water. 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). no inquest. 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. The paper mill in Dryden, Ont., is located upstream from Grassy Narrows. In the Neskantaga First Nation, undrinkable water is a crisis of health and faith. 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. away into the woods. All this came shortly after the community was relocated to a reserve, lured by the promise of better services, such as clean drinking water. “People look at us as drunks and addicts and that’s not our fault, because we’ve grown up in a really bad She wants to go back so she can graduate and make a better life for herself and her baby daughter. 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 In 1983, a CBC documentary declared Grassy Narrows a community “on the verge of collapse.” It showed a picture of the Grade 8 class that year, and detailed the horrific fate of some of the students. It’s a dream his grandfather supports, even as he contemplates the fact that his grandson’s future will be tainted by mercury. This has eliminated all long-term drinking water advisories affecting the community. On the anniversary of Azraya’s death, the Lake of the Woods District Hospital issued a statement expressing condolences, but like police, officials there refused to answer any questions about what happened the night she walked away Fobister receives $250 a month, the lowest amount granted through the Mercury Disability Board. “I kind of resent the fact they’re going to spend money to do a cleanup. Darwin hopes his work on the video will not only rally support but also help him grow into a career producing music. “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. police are part of it.”. Clean, drinkable water is a human right, that many Indigenous communities across Canada do not have access to: “Bills or no bills, access to water is necessary for human life and it should not be possible to simply deny it to anyone” (Vowel, 2016). Grassy Narrows is an Ojibway First Nation band government who inhabit northern. 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. Traditionally, Ojibwe hunted large game for subsistence. 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. “Not just in Grassy Narrows,” which is also under a boil water advisory, “but in other communities as well. when we started the blockade, but they heard the message.”. It’s the youngsters Fobister worries about the most. Indigenous peoples have been victims of environmental racism for decades, with water quality and scarcity being one of the factors. 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 suffer every day.”, Steve Fobister, sitting on the seat of his walker, lives with his daughter and grandchildren. hidden from her family, what hope is there of healing? 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. Few of them are familiar with a world beyond loss and pain and grief. A spokesperson for Ontario Provincial Police told CBC News that no internal investigations have resulted from any officer's conduct involving Azraya, but wouldn't say if the teen was in custody on the night she disappeared. intoxication, but may have failed to notice she’d been injured. (Ed Ou/CBC). “They have to go to appointments in Winnipeg with a neurologist just about every month. the environment, we are the environment. 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. Given these challenges, many people turned to alcohol to ease the pain of disability or idleness. (Ed Ou/CBC), Kyra Sinclair, left, plays with her daughter while friends and family look on. 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. While Judy DaSilva and Steve Fobister fought mainly for environmental justice, the battle for the next generation is largely about social justice. In Canada, there are 3 types of water advisories: Boil Water Advisories/Orders, Do Not Consume Advisories/Orders, and Do Not Use Advisories/Orders. Narrows Youth Organization. When you talk to young people at Grassy Narrows, they tilt between despair and defiance. 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. In addition to protesting their government, the community turned to more traditional means as well. First, there Photos by Ed Ou. (Ed Ou/CBC). rare. Some of the people in reserve. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin … (Ed Ou/CBC). We struggle to make those appointments. They’ve never lived in a community where jobs are plentiful and disabilities Kyra Sinclair imagines living her life away from the toxic past in Grassy Narrows. (Ed Ou/CBC). A former chief, skilled hunter and devoted advocate for his community, he now has difficulty standing and swallowing. When Azraya was struggling with her brother Calvin’s death, she asked her parents to put her in the care of a child welfare agency in Kenora so she could receive counselling. (Ed Ou/CBC), People came from neighbouring First Nations to take part in the ceremonies. Thousands of people in First Nations communities across Canada continue to live without access to clean drinking water. 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. Still, they fight. I’m kind of struggling after losing Azraya,” she said. Years of government inaction have resulted in the birth of generations of activists. 1,000 residents has affected three generations. Residents in Grassy Narrows must use bottled water, because the tap water is unsafe to drink. Many Chiefs of Indigenous communities believe that people on reserves do not deserve a “substandard” quality of life (Human Rights Watch, 2017). Did someone give her drugs or alcohol that contributed to her despair — and if so, are they culpable in her death? 10, 2020 Star Exclusive “I’m losing myself, I can feel it. More recent actions have included a blockade against logging that began in 2002 and continues to this day. That’s all we believe in... bad stuff.”. This past April, on the first anniversary of her death, Azraya’s parents attended a vigil and wept quietly by the tree where their daughter’s body was discovered. Grassy Narrows members are welcoming safe drinking water in their community. blockade against logging on traditional territory. Frustrated by the silence, the young people at Grassy Narrows are turning to music to raise awareness about Azraya’s death. But health services are limited to a small nursing station, and mental health counselling on the reserve is nearly non-existent. 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. what happened that night. “I can’t afford anything that would “We know the police don’t care about us,” she said. “What is there for the people that are crippled with mercury symptoms? WATER CRISIS. But their vulnerability is equalled by their resilience. 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. 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. The federal government’s response underscores the severity of the water crisis, which extends far beyond Grassy Narrows. 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. 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. The Problem. Nearly 75 per cent of the claims sent Azraya’s grandmother, Mary Eliza Keewatin, died in police custody in 1999, at the age of 57. A sister that I loved and cared for,” said Azraya’s twin brother, Braeden Kokopenace, tears welling up in his eyes. the group carried homemade signs saying “Justice for Azraya.” They slowed traffic, demanding a coroner’s inquest. There have been many battles — both public and private — during the decades of contamination at Grassy Narrows. A new study released today documents the very cost of ignoring the mercury crisis at Grassy Narrows. After government scientists first confirmed the contamination in the 1970s, Ontario closed the commercial fishery in the English-Wabigoon River system. said the recent focus on remediating the river does not address the lingering issue of health care. Azraya’s death marked a new chapter in this decades-old tragedy. Violence and a distrust of police keep spreading. Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle is the NDP candidate for Kenora.) Neither the companies, the governments nor the disability board has ever admitted two communities affected by mercury. 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. 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. The community had been dealing with three boil water advisories, with some unable to use drinking water for seven years. Early protests led to the arrival of the Japanese researchers, who established the human health consequences He also has problems with memory and concentration and suffers from extreme headaches. Azraya took it the worst.”. Asubpeechoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) has recently completed upgrades to its water treatment system. by mercury specialists. There’s nothing.”, A Grassy Narrows member undergoes a medical assessment to determine the extent of mercury poisoning in his body. That, in turn, would give meaning to their own struggles. on a walker to shuffle through the tiny bungalow he shares with his daughter and her children. (Ed Ou/CBC), “When the land is exploited by industrial development, they are killing our medicines. “I feel like we have not been able to accommodate the people that are sick,” said Fobister. Azraya’s aunt Lorenda Kokopenace said her son Christian was stabbed in the head last October, only hours after being released from police custody. My research question began as: how might we treat the patients suffering from mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. These advisories vary in terms of how restricting the rules are regarding drinking the water on reserves. Part of their challenge is understanding the role police played in Azraya’s final days. The federal government has not heeded that call. “We’re trying to fight and we’re trying to save 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. As of January 2016, drinking water advisories were in effect in 85 First Nations communities across Canada, with the majority in Ontario. and I just needed to let go of everything.”, Looking out over the lake in Grassy Narrows. Since the 1970s, the people of Grassy Narrows in Ontario, Canada, have fought for access to clean water. I urge immediate action by the Federal government to repair, upgrade, and maintain Grassy Narrows’ drinking water system. But before that, she wants to get treatment for her alcohol dependency. 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. I want them to see there’s a future coming towards them.”. I hope more of the young people would do the same.”.