Seventy kilometers north of Kenora, in Ontario’s Lake of the Woods region, among a series of rolling, densely forested hills between two lakes, is the Ojibway community of Grassy Narrows, or the Asubpeechoseewagong First Nation. It is home to about 1,000 people.
As you travel north towards it, the lakes and rivers are crowded with pleasure craft, tourists and sportsmen. The closer you get, however, the sparser the pleasure-seekers get – until eventually you find a Chernobyl stillness heavy among the trees.
Nobody wants to touch the waters around Grassy Narrows.
Between 1962 and 1970, the Reed Paper company dumped more than 9,000kg of mercury into the Wabigoon and English river systems here. Slowly, that mercury poisoned the waters, and made the walleye – the cornerstone of the local fishing-based economy and the staple food of the local First Nations people – unsafe to eat.
On 6 April 1970, shortly after detecting the spill, by then nearly a decade old, the Ontario provincial government closed the region’s fisheries and moved to cut off the source of mercury.