High Mercury Content
The Grassy Narrows & Islington Bands Mercury Disability Board

Affected Communities

Affected Communities

Grassy Narrows First Nation

The Ojibwa ancestors of the current residents of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemong Independent Nations lived in the area under study from time immemorial.

In October 3, 1873, Chief Saskatcheway and 24 other chiefs signed the North West Angle Treaty with the federal government.

In the years 1897-1903, the inhabitants of Indian Lake and Grassy Narrows became the community of Grassy Narrows.

Nonetheless, in spite of these changes, the traditional lifestyle of hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering of berries, rice and other foods continued as usual.

In the 1890s, a devestating disease struck this region. Members of the Grassy Narrows area relocated to Indian Lake. Life, however, continued as usual for the next half century.

In 1963, the community of Grassy Narrows was officially relocated to its current location of Jones Road, about five miles from the original settlement. Federal policy required this move to enable residents to have access to improved roads, indoor plumbing, sewers, electricity and a new on-reserve school.

In spite of the supposed ‘advantages’ to the relocation, there were social upheavals. The activities of the traditional lifestyle were disrupted. The families could no longer travel as a cohesive family unit in pursuit of traditional livelihoods such as trapping, gathering, hunting, fishing, and harvesting. The values of independence and self-reliance were undermined. Respect for the land and nature was weakened. There was an increase in violence and alcohol abuse in both communities. Significant changes in the lives of residents of both First Nations occurred.

With respect to Grassy Narrows First Nation, two corporations were set up to develop business activities. They oversaw such businesses as Ball Lake Lodge, Grassy Lodge, Ojibway-aking Marina and English River Fishing Adventures. The Grassy Narrows First Nation corporation itself employed its own members.

Other sources of jobs included the administration office, a day care center, an education authority, a logging business, two stores, the district heating business, a family service organization, as well as a crisis center. The 3 largest employers employed 114 fulltime and 89 part time workers.

Other activities did not do very well. Commercial fishing, wild rice harvesting, and berry picking are examples that did not provide much employment.

In 2009, the Grassy Narrows First Nation had 1,378 registered members. In the 1996 the census, or population count, shows that 46% had less than Gr.9, 32% with Gr.9-13. In short, First Nations members needed an opportunity to increase their level of education to make them more employable.

Of the 1,107 inhabitants registered in 2000, the same census shows 270 aboriginals over 15 years of age. Of that number, 185 people were included in the total aboriginal labor force. 105 were employed. Indian and Northern Affairs reveal an unemployment rate of 43%. This appears to be an improvement over the 1988 First Nations report showing 87% as unemployed. In short, employment opportunities were not abundant.

Wabaseemoong Independent Nation

Wabaseemoong Independent First Nations had previously been known as the Islington Band or the Whitedog Reserve. It was made up of the communities of Whitedog, One Man Lake and Swan Lake.

Generally speaking, the residents of this area experienced a lifestyle similar to that of Grassy Narrows.

A severe disruption of life to both occurred in the 1950s. Ontario Hydro flooded lands traditionally occupied by members of these First Nations. Wild rice harvesting and trapping and other such activities were no longer possible in areas flooded.

Overall, the traditional lifestyle had already begun to change before the mercury poisoning of the English-Wabigoon River system in 1969 when the contamination first became known to area inhabitants.

Between 1920 and 1948, commercial fishing developed around the One Man Lake reserve. Hunting and fishing lodges encouraged tourists to visit the area. Pulpwood cutting provided an alternate source of income for some.

Also, in the 1950s harvesting of green wild rice and winter ice fishing became a source of livelihood.

This is just a brief overview of the situation affecting both First Nations.They experienced a much more severe disruption in their ways of making a living after the discovery of mercury contamination.

Commercial fishing was ruined. Hunting and fishing lodges were closed. For example, the Ball Lake Lodge used to employ almost all of the employable adults at Grassy Narrows, either on a full time or on a part time basis. It was closed in the summer of 1970. The lodge was not re-opened until 1990.

The settlement that was made into law in 1986 provided funding for economic development for both First Nations. A detailed account is found in the Cosway Report.

The legislation of July 1986 set up institutions that were supposed to provide employment opportunities for First Nations members.

Various financial settlements with the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations came out of the agreements with the parties involved in the dispute. In addition to the money turned over to the to the First Nations corporation, promises included the construction of a high school as well as other community facilities.

The economic development initiatives agreed upon included ones similar to those of Grassy Narrows First Nation. Some were different, for example greenhouse and seedling production, a commercial fishery, logging, to name a few.

As of 2009, the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations had 1,756 registered members. The 1996 census showed that 39% of those over 15 years of age had less than Gr.9. 56% had grade 9-13. There were few members with an education above Gr.13. The unemployment rate was 40%.The unemployment rate since 1978 was considerably reduced. It was 80% in that year.