Saturday August 15th,
The road from Kenora to Grassy Narrows twists and turns. Like the story of this First Nations reserve, it has many precarious highs and rock bottom lows. Peter points out the spot where one CPT (Christian Peacemaker Team) delegation car left the road to go for a plunge in the lake.
The path across the rise and fall of pre-Cambrian shield through the boreal Whiskey Jack forest was walked long before the European settlers built roads. It was road building that prompted the relocation of the Grassy Narrows band. Their village, on Grassy Lake, was located where commercial interests indicated a roadway trumped indigenous claims.
Relocating the community was a trade off for the band. The village was situated across a large area with family clans living close together with distance between clans. The homes there were built by the people. They had also built a Catholic church and a community hall. But the hydro dam built in the 1950s had made the waters there precarious for boating.
The lure that attracted them to the pre-fabricated, side by side, 612 square foot houses was the offer of electricity, plumbing, and most of all – a school. An alternative to the Residential school was what sealed the deal.
They hadn’t been there long before people started getting sick. It took years of protest before the Ontario and Federal governments acknowledged the problem. A trip to Minimata Japan in 1974 where industrial mercury poisoning had crippled villagers was what convinced the Grassy Narrows people they were suffering the same effects.
The villagers in Japan told them to not expect government or industry to cooperate. It was only when the people of Minimata filed law suits, brought in the media, and conducted civil disobedience that they began to get results.
A CBC news report in June states “Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says more research is needed before the province can consider a cleanup of the 50-year-old mercury contamination near Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario.”
One of the questions I bring with me is “How do these people manage to sustain their efforts in the face of disappointments, betrayals, delays, and governments breaking their own rules and agreements?
At the Grassy Narrows annual Pow Wow Saturday afternoon I think I’ve got my answer. We watch dancers dressed head to toe in full regalia with layers of brightly coloured fabrics, feathers, headdresses, and moccasins. It’s 32 degrees and the heat saps my strength but these dancers are putting it out. All afternoon men and women dancers take turns and drummers from the different bands give them the song and beat. I am especially impressed by the dancers with grey hair. Their energy is inspiring.
This celebration of culture, spirituality, and community is deeply rooted. The children dance with their parents and grandparents. Some have obviously put hours and hours into learning the dances and the creation of their own unique regalia.
It is more than pride in culture that I am soaking up. Pride is too much a surface thing. The dancers seem to draw from a deep resilience living in sinew and bones, given life in each generation’s heartbeat as they learn what their ancestors know. The smiles and laughter and jokes come from that same deep place of knowing.
A stiff west wind coming across sparkling lake waters makes the heat just bearable. As the dancing wraps up, the announcer invites us to stay for the feast. Tables are brought out and trays of food fill them. Young people are invited to come and serve plates to the elders and visitors. A plate arrives for me and I’m truly honoured and humbled to not stand in line like the dancers who’ve been putting it out all afternoon.
It reminds me of a church dinner except for one thing. No money changes hands. And a box is put out for scraps to be taken into the woods for our furry friends. Sharing is what the day is about. It is a sacred part of who these people are. Something that the commercial interests that have twisted and turned their way of life just don’t get – because it can’t be bought.
So I’m sharing it with you.