Fish Fry

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This documentary shows the apathy of the Canadian government towards the hardship of a small community of Canadian aborigines caused by mercury poisoning.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

Narration: This is Judy, a community environmental activist in 1995 … And here she is now many years older with a smile on her face in the year 2012. But behind this happy expression, Judy is hiding a lot of pain.

SOUNDBITE [English], Judy Da Silva, Community Activist, Grassy Narrows: “I can see that I’ve changed physically, and I’m not as healthy as I was. In 1995, Just the way I feel, like forgetting things, or like not understanding somebody when they say something to me, it just sounds like gibbers and then I have to say ”What?” and they have to say it again then I can understand it. So to me it’s like a neurological thing.”

Narration: And here is Robert, Judy's father only a few years ago. He too, like his daughter is now in pain.

SOUNDBITE [English], Robert, Judy Da Silva’s father: “Hard attacks, Diabetes, Brain Cancer, Stomach Cancer … I’m one of the victims.”

Narration: A victim, that’s how he describes himself, a victim of something that happened to him and his community almost fifty years ago.

Judy and Robert are from Grassy Narrows, an aboriginal community in Canada that as this CBC journalist suggests, has been a destination for many journalists in the past few decades. The community lives near the English Wabigoon river system in North Ontario; a place that has been a food resource for aboriginal communities in Canada for years. Grassy narrows has now inherited the resource, though it’s not worth much anymore.

In 1962 Dryden Chemicals, a paper mill located in Dryden in northwestern Ontario began dumping mercury in the English Wabigoon river system.

In the space of almost ten years Dryden pumped 10 metric tons of mercury into the river system; mercury that poisoned the fish, and whoever ate those fish. “In the year 1970 the Ontario government issued a warning against eating fish from the Wabigoon river system and later on claimed that the water had been purified, until the claim was called into question by Judy and her community.

SOUNDBITE [English], Judy Da Silva, Community Activist, Grassy Narrows: “In 1997 a health Canada official came to the clinic and he said I’m from health Canada, and I’m here just to tell you that there is no more mercury in the water, every thing’s fine. And then this nurse that was there at that time, she said …, if she hadn’t said, It never would have alarm me, Like I would have just kept on with life, but she says well how come in your fishing guide, Ontario fishing guide, she had one of that, it says that they can only eat so much fish off this river system and he started slandering kind of like he did not answer “well there is no more mercury in the water” but she kept on him and when she did that, it kind of like woke up a piece of me to say “why is that?”

Narration: A question that made Judy open her eyes to a crisis that had for so long overtaken her land. A question that now brings Judy and her community thousands of kilometers to Toronto and Ottawa to protest, raise awareness and demand justice.

SOUNDBITE [English], Steve, Former Chief of Grassy Narrows: “When the news first head the mercury problem, our reporter said, it’s hard to find something that you can’t see, you can’t feel, you can’t taste, after fifty years, our popular believe, we can see it, we can taste it, we can feel it. I, myself, cannot work anymore, I stand here, proper bear the last time, and I know, I’m not the man that I used to be.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

Narration: Steve is a former Grassy Narrows chief. He can barely walk now, because of the toxic impact the mercury has had on him. When inorganic mercury enters the natural environment, it gets transferred to organic mercury known as methyl-mercury. This very toxic compound then enters the food web by dietary exposures through insects, small fish and then larger fish, a process that exponentially adds to the concentration of methyl-mercury in fish depending on age, size and level it occupies in the food web. By 1970 fish caught in the English Wabigoon river system, showed mercury levels 40 times more than had been declared safe. A reality that the Canadian medical and scientific community ignored for so long until Dr. Harada, along with his teammates such as Dr. Masanori, all neurologist from Japan, came to Canada, invited by Grassy people.

SOUNDBITE [French], Dr. Masanori Hanada, Neuro-Psychiatrist, Kumamoto Gakuen University: “Between 1970 and 1975 people of Grassy Narrows invited us to conduct a research on the mercury contamination. They invited us because the Canadian government had announced that some of rivers were polluted and as a result some had gotten sick, but there was no medical expertise to look into the issue. People of Grassy narrows had searched for relevant expertise and they invited us to come here and see what has happened here.”

Narration: Dr. Harada and his team’s findings showed strong similarities to Japan’s Minamata disease. This very devastating sickness emerged in Japan when a local factory dumped mercury into Minamata bay and many locals and animals were poisoned. It was then that the symptoms of methyl-mercury poisoning first started to appear.

SOUNDBITE [French], Dr. Masanori Hanada, Neuro-Psychiatrist, Kumamoto Gakuen University: “In 1975 we realized that patients in Grassy Narrows have similar symptoms to those in Minamata which led us to believe that the two diseases are quite identical. In 1976 three doctors came here in order to explore the disease from up-close.”

Narration: The symptoms of Minamata disease include sensory disturbances, Incoordination, Concentric constriction ,Impaired hearing, which all result from the way methyl-mercury affects immune system, genetic and enzyme and the nervous system. Methyl-mercury is particularly damaging to developing embryos, something that can later cause seizures in young children.

SOUNDBITE [English], Judy Da Silva, Community Activist, Grassy Narrows: “I can’t say like so many percentage in Grassy is like this or whatever, but I could say that I have seen a higher incidence of seizure among infants, than when one first told me in 1997, and that’s maybe because I’m more at home and I can see people like telling me my child had a seizure last night, I take my kid to the hospital because my child had a seizure.”

Narration: Whether mercury poisoning has caused death in Grassy Narrows is still unknown but for Judy, the death rate in her community and Dr. Harada findings about mercury poisoning cannot be unrelated.

SOUNDBITE [English], Judy Da Silva, Community Activist, Grassy Narrows: “I think he said that, the people he first tested; there are only a few people left that he had tested in 1975, so you don’t have a handful number of people who are still alive that had mercury poisoning in 1975. So to me that’s indicator that, the stuff they could have died of, could have been related to mercury.”

Narration: But the mercury did not only devastate people’s health, it also destroyed people's way of life.

SOUNDBITE [English], Angela Connors, Environmental Activist: “In our past we would have lived off the land, we used what is needed and we would have been comfortable and we have been able to pass down our culture, generation to generation, live our lives in a dignified manner and because of the industrialization and rapping of the land, the clear cutting, the polluting of the water, all the rest of it that goes along with that, the first nations people had not been allowed to continue their one day traditional way of life. Once the water was affected the people who are on that land are drinking the water, their fishing, their living off the fish that are coming out of the water, the wild life that surrounds the area is obviously drinking the water as well. So, whole way of life is being basically destroyed for people because of the industrialization of the area.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

Narration: Perhaps that is why for so many in the community like Chrissy Swain, one day junior member of Grassy Narrows, preserving her indigenous way of life is as important as fighting the impact of mercury poisoning.

SOUNDBITE [English], Chrissy Swain, Member of Grassy Narrows: “You know I see success when I see my children, walking in those same footsteps that I did, when I see them walking in those same footsteps that my mother did, that my Grandfather did, when we’re out there, picking the berries, and we’re eating that fish, and we are hunting, and we are using our medicine, that’s what this is all for that, so that they can have that, so that their children can have that, and this is the way I chose, this is the pass that I chose for myself and my kids, for my son who walked 2000 kilometers for the water, for those young women and men who walked with him.”

Narration: Chrissy’s son and five of his friends, walked all the way from Grassy Narrows to Toronto to educate Canadians about the history of mercury poisoning.

SOUNDBITE [English], Ninoondawah Richard, Member of Grassy Narrows: “There are six of us who walked to Toronto, Ontario. We told the story about the mercury to the young people over there. The message was to keep the water clean, for not to let the government to drill into the water. The water is so sacred to us and we have to keep on fighting for the babies who are coming in the next generation.”

Narration: Upon their arrival in Toronto, Ninoondawah and his friends joined other community members in a symbolic indigenous fish fry in front of Toronto’ Queens park.

SOUNDBITE [English], Angela Connors, Environmental Activist: “Being invited to a traditional aboriginal fish fry is a usually a good thing. I mean you want to go to this; it is part of a ceremony of sharing and taking part in a matter of good will. It would be a traditional way of sharing food, breaking bread together, showing respect for one another and unfortunately with this fish fry they decided that they are going to use the fish that actually comes from grassy narrows lake, and of course we all know that the water being polluted with the mercury and that means that there is going to be a high level of mercury content in that dish that they are actually using for the meal. So very interesting that the grandmothers from Grassy Narrows, those I’m assuming who came up with the idea would want to do this to show politicians in the southern part of Ontario that this is what they have to do with on a day to day base. It’s either go hungry or eat the fish that’s available to you which in this case happens to be contaminated. This, I think was a real tangible way for people to see walk a mile in my moccasins, this is what we have to live on every day, come on, sit down and have a meal with us, this is part of what we have to do with.”

Narration: On this table, Grassy Narrows invited provincial and federal officials including the premier of Ontario; of course none made an appearance.

SOUNDBITE [English], Unknown woman in pink coat: “I believe that they haven’t showed up because they couldn’t care less, we are just a little group of people and we don’t have much to offer them.”

Narration: Though no one showed up, for Grassy Narrows community and the supporters of their cause, even symbolic gestures like this can have an impact.

SOUNDBITE [English], Richard Day, Author: “Especially for indigenous people, you have to fight for generations to even begin to get useless lip service. There is no way. If you don’t come out, if you don’t push and push and push and push for years, then you’re ignored and there are so many incidents and stuff going on all over. In fact people are being ignored, the place has being ignored. So this is one of the cases that has corners in some news because people are out there, ding their job, defending their land and their community, and this is step one, to get your situation on to the radar of the dominant order.”

Narration: Though getting into the radar of the dominant order is not always without a challenge.

SOUNDBITE [English], Security officer: “You are in violations of those regulations for property, right?”

TIME CODE: 15:00_22:00

SOUNDBITE [English], Judy Da Silva, Community Activist, Grassy Narrows: “No…”

SOUNDBITE [English], Security officer: “Yeah, you can’t have an open fire, and you can’t cook on the property…”

SOUNDBITE [English], Judy Da Silva, Community Activist, Grassy Narrows: “It’s not an open fire…”

SOUNDBITE [English], Security officer: “You can’t have the fire …”

SOUNDBITE [English], Judy Da Silva, Community Activist, Grassy Narrows: “Our people have been doing it for thousands of years and people here for …”

Narration: Despite all these security measures and the constant negotiations going on between organizers and Toronto's Queens Park authorities, eventually Kathleen Wynne, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, made an appearance at the Fish Fry, a turn of events that for many could be a spark of hope for change.

SOUNDBITE [English], Kathleen Wynne, Former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs: “So I think it’s great that you’re here. I was asking in the legislature about why you’re here and why we haven’t done more and what I want to say to you is that this is a situation that I’m really concerned about. So it’s not nothing to me, It’s very very serious from my perspective, and our officials in the ministry have set up a committee that we are going to be working with the community to figure out what we have to do now, and so I hope that, I hope that we can do that now…”

SOUNDBITE [English], Angela Connors, Environmental Activist: “It actually was the first time that the minister has spoken to the focus from Grassy Narrows, so in that sense that was positive, downside of it, from me just listening to the conversation that she was having to me it’s more government double talk.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Kathleen Wynne, Former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs: “How was the walk? I want to know how it was…”

SOUNDBITE [English], Richard Day, Author: “It’s interesting to me to giving the length to the interaction, which is something we don’t see on the news, she is performing for a news camera, and that’s what I think is so compelling, that’s where she can’t be into the entire time, you can watch her face, shifting back and for, so there is a performance that she is trying to make, get over with and move on, and of course part of that performance is telling people that we’re going to talk, which is such a bad joke that, and it’s not funny at all because, we have been doing this talks for thousands of years, as long as colonial relations are not disturbed in any way, of course what she wants to do is tlak because it involves no action.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Kathleen Wynne, Former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs: “You know one of the things that, we have to do, all of us, we have to make all people in Ontario more aware of the kinds of situations that have been in place, I said in the legislature, this never should have happened in the sixteenth and seventieth and I don’t want anybody eating tainted fish, I don’t want anybody eating fish with mercury, specially not young people…”

SOUNDBITE [English], Richard Day, Author: “It’s really pretentious, I mean it would be easier for everyone and better as far as I’m concerning if she recommend and tell the truth and say log, we don’t care about you because you’re indigenous people and we pollute rivers and this kind of stuff all the time, it’s what is whole, settler state was founded upon this destructions and pollution of the land, actually your land, and all of it, your land any way, we don’t really want to meet that … she said a one point; “ no it couldn’t happen now”, that’s completely nonsense, we have the tar sands, massively and who knows what kind of horizon will be inflected upon indigenous and everyone else on the land, and around those areas, gigantic ponds full of toxins, it is happening now.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Kathleen Wynne, Former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs: “So here is my position on this, I don’t think anybody should be eating tainted fish. I’ll eat a little bit fish if you want, but the message we should send out to the members of the government and to the federal government and to the communities is that nobody should been eating tainted fish, we just should say that we are not going to feed it to our children, we are not going to eat it, any more…

-But the question is why we haven’t done anything so this activism as taking place here … 

We have, we actually have, there was a fish for food programing place, and we have never minted a position that anybody should be eating tainted fish, now I understand the community…”

SOUNDBITE [English], Judy Da Silva, Community Activist, Grassy Narrows: “There is a word for that, minimize, minimize us, and that how I fell when she is talking and I’m trying to grasp words in myself to give to her so that it shocks her into like our realization to listen to us but I sometimes I get stock … Clean up the river of the mercury because we did find that there is still mercury in the settlement…”

SOUNDBITE [English], Kathleen Wynne, Former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs: “…I just don’t know the science well enough to know what should be done on this point. I know this have been 87% reduction in the mercury but it needs to be zero … I’m not a scientist and I need the experts to be at the table to talk about…”

SOUNDBITE [English], Judy Da Silva, Community Activist, Grassy Narrows: “She knows how to handle us, she knows how to deal with us, that’s how I felt and we are like little children being bad.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Kathleen Wynne, Former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs: “My only constrain is that I have cabinet meeting … I have a problem because I have cabinet meeting right now … I’m here as the representative of the government.. ”

SOUNDBITE [English], Richard Day, Author: “What I think this symbolizes is denial of the part of the colonial settler state and this representative personifies that subjectivity. So wonderfully she is not there to actually talk, she is there to talk about talking. At the end some people tried to punch throw that northern European reserved beautiful shiny, nothing can touch me, if I done my sound I’m leaving, tried to get throw it, a little bit, you can only get so far and when you do it that’s one she really has to leave and has to go do something more important. So in refusing to really listen that’s the colonial moment because only those who afford to refuse to listen, can do so.”


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