Massacre at Grassy Narrows


Marci McDonald October 20 1975

Massacre at Grassy Narrows


Marci McDonald October 20 1975

Massacre at Grassy Narrows


Marci McDonald

On the hill where the pitted mud road heaves its way down to the Indian reserve they call Grassy Narrows, a ragged burial ground stands guard. A fresh mound of earth marks the spot where they laid old Camilla Loon two days before, a rude stick cross and a tin can of wine chrysanthemums at her head. But the other mounds are all festooned with plastic foam crosses and trinkets, bright purple and red plastic roses sprouting from the earth like table centres at some Tupperware party, green sunglasses and old smashed compact mirrors tucked among them like buried treasure, bits of loose change here, a child’s crutches there, a baby’s scuffed shoe.

Suddenly a photographer climbs out of the red pickup truck by the roadside and focuses his camera on a cross sporting a change purse marked Souvenir of Canada. He motions Matthew Beaver out of the truck to pose for him, a bit of human interest among the graves. For the first time in two days, a look of terror clouds Matthew Beaver’s face. “No, no,” he cries. His voice is shaking.

For death is not a subject that passes lightly at Grassy Narrows. Here in this small desolate Ojibway community of 520 tucked into an isolated bay 56 miles northeast of Kenora, Ontario, there have been too many deaths. The end coming quickly in the dark with the glint of a knife or the flash of a gun, a macabre string of shootings, stabbings and suicides delivered in the blinding rage of a night’s alcohol or anger, brother against brother, husband against wife, children cut down too soon before their time. Death hangs like a pall over the bay. And now it comes as the worst spectre of all. For months there has been talk that it has been creeping like a slow poison through this people’s veins from the fish they have caught and eaten out of the mercury-polluted English-Wabigoon river system that flows out beyond the narrows where the wild rice grows.

And now the doctors and the scientists come by seaplane to Grassy Narrows to look at Matthew Beaver and the rest. Testing, testing, always testing. Taking his blood and his hair. They tap his knees with their little hammers, prick his fingers and toes with their needles, move little white dots of light across his eyes. They tell him that the mercury in his blood is 350 parts per billion, more than 17 times the highest human safe level, more than three times that found in methyl mercury poisoning victims in the Japanese fishing settlement of Minamata where the disease first broke out in 1956, leaving 100 dead and 760 diagnosed cases of brain damage to date. They tell Matthew Beaver that he may already have the sickness, but he does not believe them. He has been fooled by white men with official titles before. “I don’t feel sick,” he says.

His upper lip quivers in a constant tremor. His benumbed hands shake so, he keeps them stuffed in his red windbreaker pockets. He has trouble with his balance. “And then I started to have a little trouble with my speech,” he says. “I can’t talk the way I used to. I stutter a little. And I can’t see too good. Sometimes I’m walking around at home and I look for my hat and I can’t see it right beside me till I look straight at it. I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting old.”

Matthew Beaver is 34. In high school in Winnipeg, he was once a pro hockey prospect. But now his slim handsome dark body cannot keep up with the simple coordination tests the doctors give him. But to the Japanese doctors who tested him and 88 other Indians here in August there is no doubt that in at least seven the signs of the incurable, irreversible mercury poisoning have already begun. A trio of Japanese victims from Minamata are en route to Grassy Narrows the very next day with that report. It details the early indications: numbness, slufred speech, balance loss, tunnel vision. And that immeasurable one, aggression. The symptoms that come before the twisted limbs, the hollow faces and blank brains, the screams of pain in the night. The eve of their visit, a Department of Health and Welfare senior consultant, Dr. Franklyn Hicks, predicts that, “Quite frankly 1 think we’re in trouble. 1 think we’re probably going to have some bad Minamata disease showing up. And it could happen any time.” But Matthew Beaver is skeptical: “I haven’t seen no proof yet, no pictures of what happens.”

They told him he shouldn’t eat the poisoned fish. That he shouldn’t go out on the only work he knows, guiding the rich American tourists at the fishing lodges that persist in staying open on the tainted lake chain, leading them out into the deep water where the big ones are, then deftly filleting and frying up the fresh white walleyes for the shore cookout that he always looks forward to golloping down. “The fish, they taste so good,” he says. “They look good too, firm, not sick.” This summer finally, worried after five years of warnings, Matthew Beaver cut back his guiding—and his income—by half. That morning when a reporter and a photographer met him, he was lined up at the band office, shaking and embarrassed, to apply for welfare. If it didn’t come through quick, he was going back out fishing like his friends. There was only a dollar in his pocket and some soup left in the small, bare, mangy #39 house by the water where he had five kids to feed, only a fourburner hotplate and a tinny wood stove. “I got so many kids, they got to eat. I got to keep going,” he says. “Fish, that’s our livelihood, and still is. There’s boys that keep workin’ steady. I talked to some of them and they say if the fish was bad, why would they let the American tourists eat it?”


Matthew Beaver stands out on the rocks where the bay laps against the beach, a tranquil and magnetic blue dancing in the autumn sun, and he shakes his head. “This mercury—I knew it was in the thermometer. I knew it was poison. But how would it get in the water, in the fish? I don’t know, I don’t know,” he says.

The Dryden Paper Co. looms like a monolith over the bustling little town of the same name 84 miles east of Kenora. A hulking concrete monster of towers and smokestacks belching foul grey clouds that smell like an untreated outhouse and drift inexorably toward the highway eatery that calls itself Aroma Pizza. From 1962 to 1970, its adjacent chlor-alkali plant, which produces chemicals to bleach the paper, dumped 10 to 20 pounds of waste mercury a day into the Wabigoon River. From there it seeped slowly and insidiously downstream for 130 miles, past Grassy Narrows and the nearby Whitedog reserve, eventually across the Manitoba border into Lake Winnipeg, percolating up from the silt through the food chain till it coursed in lethal proportions through the pickerel and pike the area is famous for.

Five years ago when the Ontario government ordered Dryden to cut down its mercury dumping, banned the sale of fish from the entire waterway and suggested that fishing lodges should cajole guests into throwing their catches back by means of Day-Glo orange FISH FOR FUN signs, they also said the whole thing would be cleaned up in 16 to 20 weeks. But mercury experts say it will take 70 to 100 years for the river to cleanse itself. Even now there is no fish life in the first 40 miles of the Wabigoon below Dryden—“a dead river,” it’s called.

These days the big waste pipe at Dryden vomits a thick, yellowish-brown bile into the Wabigoon—but, says the company, only one fifth of an ounce a day of mercury (which will stop completely at the beginning of November when its processes become mercury-free). Still, on January 13 this year, the company admits an “operational error” dumped 7.2 pounds of mercury into the river. And even then, all monitoring of the waters is done by Dryden itself. In all this time, the Ontario government has never brought a suit against Dryden, although ironically the Manitoba government has. Indeed, the province has shown itself an uncommon friend to the company and its parent, Reed Paper Ltd., which registered after-tax profits of $34,045,000 last year. From 1970 to 1973, the provincial Ministry of the Environment granted Dryden $18,640 under the Pollution Abatement Incentives Act. The provincial ministry of natural resources appointed former mill manager Tommy S. Jones, now a Reed vice-president, as a ministerial adviser. And on September 12 last year the federal Department of Regional Economic Expansion, (DREE), which has a standing consultation agreement with the province, awarded $2,672,624 to Dryden to extend its timbercutting north—a move protested by the Indians since it threatens to wipe out their hunting grounds.

In fact, until the end of this season, this same provincial government—which all along has stated that fish with a mercury level higher than .5 parts per million were unsafe for human or animal consumption—has continued to license all tourist camps that wanted to stay open along the river, where guests are proudly served up fish-fry lunches that test from five to 20 times higher than that mark. Last year the government even bought Minaki Lodge, pumping at least $3.3 million into it, and got into the tourist fish camp business itself. Tourism and pulp mills, after all, are the economic anchors of the Kenora area, where a 40-foot synthetic finned statue of Husky the Muskie stands as town monument. And it would not be good for either tourism or pulp mills to have it known that University of Rochester toxicologist Dr. Tom Clarkson has recently computed that a tourist who eats fish with a five parts per million mercury level (the average river level) over a period of three weeks can briefly build up a blood level of 450 parts per billion—100 parts higher than Matthew Beaver has. When a visitor ventures into the regional tourist office at the edge of town to ask about mercury, she is told by manager Frank Newstead, “It’s all a big joke. We eat the fish all the time. Why, they say you’d have to eat 80 pounds of fish a day for seven years to get sick.”

The attitude of Kenora is not far removed from that of Eleanor M. Jacobson, author and publisher of a racist little redcovered booklet called Bended Elbow that sold 26,000 copies from the bus station counter and portrays the Indian as a hopeless drunk. “This mercury’s a farce,” she says. “Why, there’s a bigger problem with the Indians drinking hair spray and Raid.”

Even as late as a few weeks ago, Dr. James Stopps, senior consultant on environmental health for Ontario, told Maclean’s that, “We have no full-blown Minamata disease. Just because people have a 200 parts per billion blood level doesn’t mean they’re sick. Now, I’m also not saying there isn’t a problem.” But Dr. Stopps said it was a federal problem. An Indian Affairs official, however, confides anonymously that he has seen a letter from his minister, Judd Buchanan, saying that it’s a provincial responsibility. Meanwhile, Leo (“A man who cares”) Bernier, the big, hearty Minister of Natural Resources who also happens to be the area MPP, refused to discuss the matter in his recent election campaign after years of calling it “seriously overrated,” and on the night of his victory party last month in Kenora, as townfolk gathered round the Knights of Columbus hall to chorus, “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” he snapped at a reporter, “I don’t talk about mercury. It’s not my department.” Which is odd since it was his department that banned commercial fishing, licensed the tourist fish camps and two months before the election sent the reserve two freezers and hired four families to net some nearby clean lakes—a catch that even on a good day will barely feed the band.


Five years after the mercury was discovered as a health threat spilling out of Dryden—two years after a provincial task force on mercury made more than a dozen strong recommendations—the two $700 freezers represented the first concrete action. outside of some random and haphazard blood testing, that the province had taken until the Japanese visit this month forced them into a show of concern. “It’s bound to make you feel bitter,” says Grassy Narrows chief Andy Keewatin. “If this happened in Kenora to the white people there’d be some action. But the government don’t seem to want to listen because it’s just Indians.”

Ever since the commercial fishing was shut down five years ago and the largest tourist lodge in the area voluntarily shuttered, leaving more than 100 native guides out of work, Andy Keewatin has watched the reserve turn from 95% employed to 95% unemployed, the annual welfare cheque climb from $9,000 in 1969 to nearly $140,000 this year. He has watched a cancer creep in from the bay and eat away at the entire social fabric of the tiny band, leaving the reserve riddled with drinking, violence and abject hopelessness. For the story of mercury pollution in northwestern Ontario is not just a story of how a people’s health is threatened, but of how an entire way of life has been destroyed.

“Once there was pride,” he says. “You went out, caught fish, brought it home. But when people weren’t making their own livings and started to get handouts, it changed their whole lives. It takes the pride out of a man to go up there and ask for welfare. There was nothing to do. Nothing to look forward to. Then the drinking came.” From 1970 to 1973, there have been nearly 200 violent Indian deaths in the Kenora area, more than two thirds of them associated with alcohol and, although Grassy Narrows and Whitedog, the two mercuryridden reserves, have both voted themselves dry, they have the second and third highest totals. An 11-year-old stabbing his 12-year-old brother in the leg and leaving him to bleed to death on the road. A 17year-old suddenly whirling on his 16-yearold nephew in a drunken fury and pumping a bullet through him. The morning after a drinking party, an infant found frozen in the snow. The statistics at Grassy Narrows translate into living nighfmares. “I blame it on mercury,” says Andy Keewatin. “It seems people don’t want to care any more.”

For five years the band has asked for jobs or an industry. This year, for the first time, Indian Affairs is talking over plans for a reserve shoe factory or a fibreglass canoe works, although the latter is a project set in motion by a Quaker doctor at Grassy Narrows, Peter Newberry, out of his own money. But neither is definite nor could get under way before next year. “I think if people had a little more things to do, they wouldn’t eat the fish,” says Andy Keewatin. He sits in the small, dingy all-purpose front room of his house, where there is only an oil space heater against the 40-below winters, a steel drum for water, a color TV over the fridge in the corner and a brand new shiny freezer. The only other real piece of furniture in the room is a worn black La-Z-Boy where his old mother, who is just home from the hospital that morning after a stroke, rocks disconsolately in front of an orange crate, stuffing Kleenexes into a tin can. The door screen has rusted away and a fly buzzes around his head. He brushes it away and smiles a bitter smile that exposes the stubs of black molars rotting in his mouth. “We got to get some jobs,” he says. “We got to get the pride back. We got to get it so the young people aren’t turning against their parents.”


Matthew Beaver’s arm aches from the untreated knife wound he got in a fight days before in Kenora when a gang of white toughs jumped him, calling him a “dirty Indian.” But he steers the light aluminum skiff out through the narrows into open water. The lake hefe is majestic, framed by silver birches and the brushstrokes of autumn, the poplars splashed vivid yellow against the pines sloping up from sand beaches, ripe chokecherries like scarlet markers along the paths. Here and there a forgotten log cabin still stands. “This is where we used to live,” he says. “Life was better then.”

In 1962, the year Dryden started dumping mercury into the river, Indian Affairs moved Grassy Narrows from its ancestral home here to “that little corner” down stream, as Matthew Beaver calls the present reserve. They wanted the band accessible by road—and it was cheaper to move the Indians than build the road another two miles. On the old reserve they were spread out; they hunted, fished and tended their gardens of potatoes and corn. They almost never made the four portages into town. But they were promised electricity and running water—the good things of progress. And so the elders did not fight the move. This spring the electricity came to Grassy Narrows—13 years late. There still is no running water, except in the small overcrowded school and the four white teachers’ houses. Matthew’s wife, Irene, must walk down the dirt road to the tap outside the school each morning with her pails, but sometimes in winter she just hauls water up out of the lake. Either way there is a hepatitis virus in it, according to Dr. Newberry, and it is not safe to drink. The reserve now is crowded on a hunk of clay too poor for gardens. The only store is the Hudson’s Bay post two miles down the road which charges $4.70 for four pork chops. And the 45 miles of twisting, rutted gravel road to town that takes two hours to drive has not brought progress, but the cabs that come bootlegging booze and are only too glad to take the natives back into Kenora at $40 a one-way fare.

Coming in from the old reserve, the contrast is appalling; children are clambering over the skeleton of a shattered, gutted car wreck lying on the beach like old bones; the flimsy, basement-less, green wood houses that the government says cost $10,000 each go largely untended, windows boarded over, front yards strewn with puppies and litter, the full brunt of their occupants’ betrayal and disrespect. When Leo Bernier suggested the Indians could always relocate to a clean lake to get away from the mercury, the chiefs of both Grassy Narrows and Whitedog, which has also been relocated, laughed in his face.

Later that night, there is a band meeting in the bare wood shell of the rec hall. The elders sit on one side of the room with 56year-old Andy Keewatin. The younger ones sit opposite with Tommy Keesick, the university graduate with a long black ponytail down his back, who was chief until he took up guns with Louis Cameron of Whitedog and the rest of the young Ojibway Warrior Society for 34 tense, fruitless days during the summer before last in Kenora’s Anicinabe Park. He says one of the things being demanded in the park was a solution to the mercury problem. But six days after the armed occupation of Anicinabe began, a friend got word to him that Indian Affairs had brought around a petition and he had been voted out as chief and Andy Keewatin voted in. Now Tommy Keesick is the band’s mercury consultant. Both heand Andy Keewatin had gone to Minamata to see what mercury had done to human bodies and unborn bodies and came back shaken—“a horror movie.” they had both described it. But Tommy Keesick had a special stake in the trip. Back home in his neat, modest # 13 house where the upside-down Canadian flag of the Warriors’ Society hangs on the living room wall, his 18-year-old bride, Debbie, is expecting their first child next month. “I think I’ll go crazy if something is wrong with Debbie or the baby,” he says.


The meeting is in Ojibway, quiet, almost monotone, but the tension translates easily. There is criticism of the chiefs inaction. “We have said and done nothing for too long,” says the 23-year-old councillor, Steve Fobister, who is leading it. “It’s about time we stood up for ourselves.” Hours later, after the whites have left the meeting, Andy Keewatin emerges, upset, and signs a paper relinquishing his powers. He had looked forward to welcoming the Japanese to the reserve, but now he would not do it. “They fired me,” he said. “The young people—they figure I’m too old. They want to shake things up.”

In the Grassy Narrows rec hall where a trio of Japanese victims from Minamata have come, paying their own plane fare to Canada to warn of the horrors of mercury poisoning, Matthew Beaver slips quietly into a back row seat. It is several days later and the banquet of wild rice and fresh moose meat is over. He watches, stunned, as Tsuginori Hamamoto, the 39-year-old leader and former fisherman, struggles to stand, his crippled legs buckling under him, his body wracked by tremors, his shaking hands leaning on a cane and a friend, as he says. “I do not want the people here to be poisoned by mercury and end up having a body like mine.” The Japanese tell how the sickness came in Minamata as long as 13 years after some people had stopped eating the fish. They tell how once the symptoms have come, it is too late, for the brain damage has already been done. They show films of Hamamoto’s old father, who was struck down suddenly one day with convulsions, dying nine days later, a lingering tortured death. Pictures of hollow-eyed children born with misshapen limbs; young girls with brains like sponges and hands like claws. When the lights go up, Matthew Beaver is shaken. “It’s frightening now,” he says. “That’s what I was really waiting for—some evidence to see what the mercury could do. I don’t think I’ll eat the fish now unless I’m starving. I don’t know if I’ll go back working on the river now.”

But mixed with the shock, there is another mood too in the band hall. Hamamoto has told them how it was 20 years ago in Minamata—the doctors saying the sickness was nothing, probably the result of drinking; the disbelieving people still eating the fish; the government and giant polluting Chisso corporation mute and unresponsive to the poor ill-educated fishermen. “The industry felt we were like animals. We had to stand up on our own or nothing would have been done,” he says. The films have shown the people of Minamata storming Chisso, from which they eventually wrestled more than $84-million in damages. Hamamoto has presented the Indians with a loudspeaker like the one the Japanese used in their demonstrations and urged them to fight. Although only that week Indian Affairs had finally agreed to launch a feasibility study into a suit against Dryden. a ripple of grim determination sets among the young people in the room. “We have been given the opportunity to look into our future,” says Tommy Keesick, with a steely quiet. “And whatever happens in the future I believe the government and the polluter should be held responsible. Genocide is what I call it. And what has to happen? Do 300 of us Indians have to die before something is done?”

It is past midnight but outside the children are running wild in packs under the moonlight, streaming across the mud with kerchiefs knotted around their brows like headbands. They whoop and holler and hammer on a steel garbage barrel. In the darkness, across the distance, it sounds like the roll of a distant angry drumiÿ