Grassy Narrows deserves more than that 2,700 megawatts of power – they need it now | Shakna Soper and Dervina Johnson

A century ago, Métis settlement in Grassy Narrows was not the norm. Gradually, the local and federal governments worked to make the land available to native communities. It was on Grassy Narrows that a spark started the First Nations rights movement, and in the ensuing years, more than 1,500 Grassy Narrows and Quispamsis First Nations people were granted federally notified recognition for traditional lands.

Yet, federal governments today continue to neglect the people who call Grassy Narrows home. As late as the 1960s, the Métis people in Grassy Narrows were assigned two reserves on the territory, which left a deep sense of unfinished business.

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Today, Grassy Narrows is a heartbreaking shadow of its former self. The building collapse last October was catastrophic, the death of a pregnant mother of three and others left in critical condition a horror story. But the health of the Neechu family has continued to struggle, with sepsis among the leading causes of hospitalizations among First Nations people in Ontario.

Three years ago, despite progress on primary prevention, the economic downturn hurt hard-hit First Nations communities. The MP Lee Richardson of the area and his local community joined with the province to extend funding for water and sewer infrastructure and mental health services in the region.

Now, Ontario is considering diverting 2,700 megawatts of power from Dawson Creek, in British Columbia, to Ontario. These are affordable power rates for British Columbia communities, and it may be a good thing for them. The federal government should not abandon local communities to a lack of resources.

Grassy Narrows was created by First Nations in 1875. The isolation from regional community values and federal policy, as well as the depredations of the 19th-century gatherers on lands aboriginal people used to support themselves has contributed to their precarious physical and mental health.

As efforts to bring Grassy Narrows and other First Nations into the mainstream proceed, more communities may be faced with the choice of selling their land to allow industrialization. This threatens the very culture that created these places. The result is a kind of civilizational coffin-diving in a desert of contaminated land.

To add insult to injury, Grassy Narrows residents must endure the threat of the remaining land-use plan and mining operations to the community’s land. Last month, when Grassy Narrows village councillors met with a representative of the province, they were told that a strike team would soon begin examining their “higher priority” sites for oil, gas and mineral activities. “Site A” is the community’s northern oil and gas field, as well as its northern community centre and public school.

To put it simply, land as great as Grassy Narrows has been taken by the Crown as a gift. All we want is a shot at decent employment, equitable education, social housing and medicine for poor people. That’s more than a bit ambitious for a community of Grassy Narrows.

Accessing regional development funds to upgrade their community health centres is much more realistic, especially in a desperate economic downturn. Grassy Narrows must continue to make strides, but our communities need access to resources now, not in 15 years. Our people are focused on the things that matter: healthcare, education, and living in quality homes. It’s time for the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and co-operation, Marie Deschamps, to get out of the way.

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Along with the leadership, of those who left a place in Grassy Narrows, comes a strong tradition of family and community. Building on that, we are already a stronger community than most others at odds with the Canadian government. As we face adversity and the challenges of development, our community is succeeding not by giving up but by fighting back with a broad array of social policies, local and federal. At Grassy Narrows, we are fortunate to be able to leverage local leadership, First Nations support and national support.

Moving forward, this time with confidence, Grassy Narrows will work alongside its neighbouring communities and with local, provincial and federal government to make Grassy Narrows a future-proof community.

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