How much is an “Indian” life worth? Apparently, not very much.

What do the following Indigenous communities all have in common?

  • Grassy Narrows
  • Northwest Angle 33 First Nation
  • Aamjiwnaang First Nation
  • Muskrat Falls
  • Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation,
  • Kashetchewan
  • etc. etc. etc.

Decades of fighting the federal and provincial governments to address ongoing health issues “plaguing” Indigenous people across the country, going back to the founding – or funding – of Kanata (Canada) in 1867 through the expropriation and pillaging of Indigenous lands. Colonial existence throughout the America’s from the time of first contact has always been predicated on the exploitation of resources – natural and human – to advance the progress of white “civilization”.

In other words, Canada forcibly and wilfully manipulated, removed and murdered Indigenous peoples on the plain in the name of “progress” literally clearing it for settlement. In countries of the world this is called ethnic cleansing, extermination, and genocide. In Canada this is called progress.”

“Clearing the Plains. Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life”. James Daschuk, 2013. FromBozhoo Indinawemaganidog. An Invitation to all Our Relationsby Niigaan James Sinclair.

Clearing the Plains” describes the government policy of forced starvation of Indigenous peoples – among other tactics – to herd them onto reservations where a legacy of broken promises, treaties and lives continues to this day. What follows are just a few snapshots of how Indigenous lives over 150 years later are still being marginalized, discounted and ultimately sacrificed. Economic interests dictate that return on investment takes precedence over human lives – or should I say “Indian” lives – that are considered less valuable, less important and ultimately more expendable.

Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (White Dog)

My people are dying” Judy Da Silva, an Anishinaabe mother and grandmother and Grassy Narrows environment and health coordinator

Mercury exposure and premature mortality in the
Grassy Narrows First Nation community. The Lancet. April 2020

The 2016 Canadian census reported that only 4% of individuals from the Grassy Narrows First Nation were 65 years or older vs 16.9% for the rest of Canada. “Between 1991 and 2006, the probability of survival from age 25 to 60 years for non-Indigenous Canadians was 91% for men and 94% for women, while for First Nations people it was 80% for men and 87% for women.” The Lancet study also found that in Grassy Narrows:

  • Individuals who died when younger than 60 years, had five-times higher Hg exposure over the surveillance period (1970 – 1997), than those of the same sex, born at the same time
  • 27 individuals who had previously been examined in 1975 all had neurological symptoms that were getting worse
  • Health Canada conducted umbilical-cord blood tests between 1970 and 1992 on babies born to Grassy Narrows mothers. Results showed high mercury levels, which are known to be contributing factors in the development of certain physical and mental-health disorders
  • Survival analyses showed a 55% increase in risk of dying for those with defined higher concentrations of mercury

The government didn’t release the data initially gathered in 1995 for analysis until 2016 (CBC. Dec. 17, 2018) – 21 years later!

“The study did not include individuals born since that time (1970), who were exposed to Hg (mercury) in utero and early childhood, a critical period for developmental programming, particularly for the nervous system. Further studies are needed to investigate the health and social consequences of these early and life-time exposures”. The Lancet

June 4, 2012: CBC Masanori Hanada, the director of the Centre for Minamata Studies in Japan…explained that the mercury poisoning victims in Japan received $800,000 US as compensation in 1973 and continue to receive $2,000 to $8,000 per month, also based on the severity of symptoms. The Harada report found that for Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong combined, only one quarter – 25% – “of those whom we diagnosed or deemed suspicious of Minamata disease were officially approved” for compensation

In Canada, the board designates payments from $250 to $800 per month.

51 years later – still fighting and still dying!

Northwest Angle 33 First Nation

May, 17, 2020: Toronto Star – “Cancer has ravaged this tiny First Nation. Now it’s on the verge of disappearing“.

Northwest Angle 33 First Nation in Ontario signed Treaty 3 with the Crown in 1873. The site of the treaty signing has now been flooded and contaminated. The years of “long-term drinking water advisories, poor health care and chronic cancer cases have plagued the community”.

Consider the following:

  • 60% of residents had a first degree relative with cancer where the average age of cancer diagnosis was 41
  • Two boil water advisories have been in place since 2011 and a “Do Not Consume” advisory – the most serious level – was issued in 2016 when a lethal chemical cocktail was found in the reserves west-end pumphouse plant that formed radionuclides linked as a cause for various forms of cancer.
  • In the early 1980s, scientists in the region discovered that black spruce stimulates the production of methylmercury
  • in 2000, scientists at the University of Montreal discovered that clear cutting forests increased mercury contamination in nearby lakes by up to 100% and as the mercury was released into the water, it moved into the food chain
  • In 2016, the Star “reported on internal emails of top environment ministry officials in Ontario who had warned that clear-cut logging releases mercury into the environment
  • This was in reference Grassy Narrows who have been fighting the federal and provincial governments since 1969 after the effects of 10 tons of mercury being dumped into the Wabigoon-English River system in northwestern Ontario in 1962 became apparent including the collapse of their commercial fishing industry that was their primary industry and primary source of food.

A Health Canada cancer study begun in 2015 stalled and no environmental tests were conducted and was eventually cancelled due to lack of funding.

Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Forty percent of Canada’s petrochemical industry is packed into a 15-square-mile area in Sarnia, Ontario, called the Chemical Valley. More than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries operate there 24/7. (VICE News, Aug, 7, 2013)

“The more clouds in the sky, the more people die.” An Aamjiwnaang mother.

“According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, Sarnia’s air is the most polluted air in Canada” and on all sides, Chemical Valley surrounds Aamjiwnaang First Nation. In 2002, the First Nation established the Aamjiwnaang Environmental Committee that began commissioning studies that identified several health anomalies:

  • 39% rate of miscarriages
  • 2:1 birth ratios of female to males vs standard 1:1 ratio
  • chronic headaches and asthma.
  • Forty per cent of band members surveyed required an inhaler.
  • asbestos related cancers (Toronto Star, Sept. 30, 2011)

Understanding Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s environmental health journey” Indigenous Health Conference“. University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine. Initially scheduled for May 21-23, 2020 has been postponed due to COVID-19

Aamjiwnaang has been involved in over 20 years of research studies including air, water, animals and food analyses in the past. However, not much is known about the impact of these environmental pollutants within the community (Conference presentation on their website). Also identified:

  • Mothers and children had been exposed to a number of pollutants (cadmium, mercury, perfluorinated chemicals) trending higher than other Canadians
  • Body mapping – higher incidence of skin problems, developmental and behaviour concerns, miscarriages and respiratory problems
  • Traditional food sampling – similar contaminant levels found as in other areas of Ontario

A new study on air quality reported in Anishinabek on Jan. 12, 2020 found that the highest concentrations among the four monitoring stations in south Sarnia and the Chemical Valley were found in Aamjiwnaang. The study recommends further:

  • air monitoring, particularly near the community’s daycare centre
  • calls for stricter enforcement of pollution regulations on industry
  • “more timely response” from government to industrial chemical spills and leaks.

After many years of requesting a comprehensive health study, the Sarnia Area Environmental Health Project is being led by the Ministry of Environment and is scheduled to issue a final report in 2021.

Muskrat Falls

Lake Melville: Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut Scientific Report April 18, 2016 – The report issued after 4 years concludes that methyl mercury levels could rise by 1500%, cause serious food insecurity and disrupt a way of life that is heavily dependent on the land and the water.

Nunatsiavut – Hundreds of Labrador Inuit will be pushed above regulatory guidelines for exposure to methylmercury if the Muskrat Falls reservoir is not fully cleared of all wood, brush, vegetation and topsoil, according to a Harvard University report released today. The Lake Melville Scientific Report is the result of four years of a multi-pronged investigation that has led to important scientific discoveries about how methylmercury accumulates in the Lake Melville ecosystem and how it will impact Inuit who rely on Lake Melville for food and resources.

The problems at Muskrat Falls are twofold;

  • Ignoring the recommendations of the Independent Expert Advisory Committee (IEAC) on mitigating the risks of increased release of methylmercury into the ecosystem supporting the way of life and ongoing health of Labrador Innu
  • The lawful right to protest has been prohibited due to a court injunction brought against Innu land protectors (just like with the Wet’suwet’en in BC). One result: An Innu grandmother was jailed for 10 days in a maximum security men’s prison 1000 kms away from her home community

Mar. 10, 2020: Global News – Provincial Supreme Court Justice Richard LeBlanc delivered a scathing report of the Muskrat Falls Inquiry that determined that the government “did not act appropriately” or fairly with Indigenous people regarding environmental and health concerns related to the project, saying government and Nalcor’s actions created “an environment of mistrust” that led to protests, unrest and further delays.

Aug. 4, 2017: Nunatsiavut – Established to make recommendations on mitigating potential impacts of methylmercury from the Lower Churchill Project at Muskrat Falls. The Independent Expert Advisory Committee is comprised of the Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut Government, NunatuKavut Community Council, the provincial and federal governments, Nalcor, and the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The establishment of the IEAC was a key agreement reached between the Provincial Government and the three Indigenous groups on October 26, 2016 to make recommendations on mitigating potential impacts of methylmercury from the Lower Churchill Project at Muskrat Falls, Labrador, NL.


  • On Sept. 18, 2017 – only 6 weeks after committing to following whatever recommendations IEAC proposed, IEAC was informed that Nalcor WOULD NOT be honouring their major commitment to lower water levels in the reservoir to allow for further mitigation measures
  • Sept. 16, 2018 – initial IEAC recommendations to mitigate against methylmercury received by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador
  • April 10, 2018 – Final IEAC recommendations received by government
  • Aug. 15, 2018 : The Telegram Nalcor without consulting the Mekap’sk Mi’kmaq Band and without their permission decided to remove bridges and gate access roads, thereby restricting access to tracts of land in and around the transmission line area. The unilateral decisions of Nalcor infringe on the Aboriginal Rights and Aboriginal Title of the Mekap’sk Mi’kmaq
  • Dec. 17, 2018 – NCC (NunatuKavut Community Council) is extremely disappointed in the lack of action from the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador on the final and second set of recommendations submitted by the IEAC on the monitoring, management and mitigation of potential methylmercury impacts of the Lower Churchill Project…to date, there has been no response
  • Feb. 19, 2019 – The Government of NL released the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities (PUB) interim report, which outlines options to prevent the significant cost of the Muskrat Falls project from impacting Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Nothing on mitigating the impact of methylmercury on local Innu
  • July 22, 2019 – Without ever directly responding to the IEAC mitigation recommendations, “both the Premier and Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall, say that it is too late to carry out any mitigation measures; that flooding is imminent.
  • Jul 23, 2019 – Government offers $30M ($10M to each Indigenous group) as compensation. The Government of Nunatsiavut refused to be bought.

The Nunatsiavut Government is extremely disappointed with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador with the way it has handled the whole Muskrat Falls fiasco. The Premier has repeatedly betrayed our trust by neglecting to respond, in writing or publicly, to our concerns and/or questions. If this is what reconciliation is all about, then we want no part of it. With reservoir impoundment under way, the time bomb is ticking on the future of those who depend on the Churchill River and Lake Melville for sustenance, and on the health, culture and way of life of many Labrador Inuit.Nunatsiavut Government President Johannes Lampe.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation,

Poor projected health outcomes for First Nation cancer patients are not likely to change without purposeful action toward increased partnerships across the multiple health systems, increased information and knowledge gathering activity, and the increased involvement of First Nations communities; organizations and stakeholders in the development of culturally appropriate and safe cancer care pathways and strategies.

Alberta Baseline Assessment Report: Increased access to culturally-safe cancer care pathways. Alberta First Nations Governance Centre. Oct. 7, 2015

Dec. 17, 2019Canada’s National Observer – Repeated failure by government authorities to conduct a comprehensive baseline health study as recommended by the Alberta Cancer Board (supported by the province’s governing health authority, Alberta Health Services) in 2009. In Fort Chipewyan, a community of roughly 1,200 people, an Alberta Cancer Board study found instead of the expected 39 cases of cancer it found 51 cases, a difference of 30.7 per cent.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation and the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan are all situated near the mouth of the Athabasca River. The Athabaska River flows through Canada’s oil patch, giving rise to the theory that the oil-and-gas industry is responsible for the illnesses, having poisoned people for years by contaminating the environment. Government bodies and researchers have challenged that theory, leading to a call for a new more conclusive health study that could provide real answers. For example:

  • Dr. John O’Connor, first flagged the issue of higher rates of cancer among his Indigenous patients in Fort Chipewyan in 2006.
  • influential environmental scientist David Schindler conducted a research study in 2010 published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, that confirmed oilsand’s developments had contributed heavy metals, such as mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium, and other contaminants — toxic even in low amounts — to the region’s waterways
  • Without any movement on the baseline health study, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation pooled their resources to fund research. With some additional funding from Health Canada, a three-year, $1-million study was led by Stephane McLachlan, a professor at the University of Manitoba.
  • His findings released in 2014 measured contaminants not only in water but also in beavers, ducks, fish, moose and muskrats — animals consumed as part of a traditional diet for those who continue to live off the land in the Peace-Athabasca Delta. He concluded that the animals contained high concentrations of pollutants such as carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium. All of these are by-products of extracting and upgrading bitumen. Arsenic in particular has been linked to increased risk of biliary tract cancer.
  • In 2014, Dr. O’Connor, in testimony before the US Senate relating to the Keystone XL pipeline stated that he believed elevated cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan were linked to chemicals leaching into the Athabasca River from the oil sands. The Government of Alberta categorically denied the charge and the evidence. Shortly after, Dr. O’Connor was fired.

“At a minimum, this comprehensive health study that we’ve been calling for and demanding, over the last 15 or 20 years, needs to be done,” Stephane McLachlan said. “It needs to be done in a way where the First Nations are full partners in that work. That they have ultimate say in terms of the nature of the work, and the focus of the work, and ultimately how the outcomes are shared.”

Six years later, no Health Study has been conducted.


In 1957, the Kashechewan First Nation was created when the federal government – with the help of the RCMP – forcibly relocated approximately 2500 residents from the south shore of the Albany River to the north shore to what was a recognized floodplain.

May 8, 2019: CBC – The community has experienced major flooding in 1976, 1985 and in 2006. For 17 years, the community has been evacuated every spring, with residents going south to towns such as Timmins, Kapuskasing and Cochrane. In 2006, it took three days to emergency airlift everyone out by helicopter after major flooding.

The engineering firm hired by Kashechewan in 2015 to assess the community’s 24-year-old dike, said it was deteriorating and presented “an intolerable risk to the community.” “In the spring of 2006, the ring dike was almost over toppled, which would have released a wall of water engulfing the entire community in a manner of minutes,” according to a report produced by the company, Hatch Ltd.

April 24, 2019: Policy Options – The cost of the 2014 emergency evacuation was estimated at $21 million. Given that the community has been through this 17 times now, the cost of a permanent relocation to higher ground — pegged at $500 million in 2005 — doesn’t seem so high. Had federal and provincial officials lived up to their commitments, Kashechewan would not be in this crisis, nor would its people have to live with the added trauma of fear, anxiety and uncertainty year after year.

The effects of relocations like these, which can last for months, can be traumatic for:

  • elders
  • those with physical or mental illnesses
  • those with mobility issues and
  • especially for children, whose whole lives are disrupted in the middle of their school year

The community is fragmented. Children are denied the stability and security of their extended families and their community while getting further behind in school. Single mothers struggle to raise young children while cooped up in a hotel for weeks or months on end. Add to this the stress of not knowing whether their homes and possessions will be destroyed and when they can return home.

Consider as well:

  • In 2005, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin committed to relocating the community 30 kilometres upriver. But, like his promised Kelowna Accord to infuse $5 billion into First Nation programs and services like housing and water, the move was cancelled when Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected. 
  • Also in 2005, the community declared a water crisis due to E. coli contamination on top of multiple long-term drinking water advisories
  • In 2007, reports of the suicide attempts of 21 young people on the reserve made national headlines. CTV Mar. 31, 2017
  • May 4, 2019: TML Weekly – On March 31, 2017, the government of Canada, the government of Ontario and Kashechewan First Nation signed a framework agreement for relocation of the First Nation Community, to move them up river. The tripartite agreement commits the parties to the development of an action plan to support the short, medium and long-term sustainability of the community, with a focus on improving outcomes in priority areas including
    • housing
    • socio-economic sustainability
    • health programs and facilities
    • infrastructure development
    • and schools and community facilities

Dec. 19, 2019: CBC – Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) provided a statement that reads in part: “The relocation of Kashechewan is a complex project that requires detailed planning. ISC continues to estimate that a total of 8 to 10 years will be required to complete relocation.”

Etc. etc. etc.

COVID-19 anyone?

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