Last March, scientists from the Toronto-based environmental company Gartner Lee travelled to Attawapiskat, a small Ontario town at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River where it flows into the James Bay, and studied the condition of the water surrounding the community.
On March 25, the company released a report stating that its studies had discovered high levels of mercury in both the water and the fish. It recommended to the community band members that only a certain amount of fish be eaten per week and that some types, such as Walleye and white fish, should be eaten only once a month because of their high mercury content. Ever since the tests were carried out, local residents have been catching deformed fish, some with no eyes or no fins.
Like this wasn’t bad enough, the community only received a memo, three months later, in June, when Deputy Chief Theresa Spence finally got around to releasing it.
“How can we eat only one fish per week?” questioned Attawapiskat resident Greg Shisheesh. “We smoke them, boil them, squish them into pieces. We make fish cakes. It’s not just fish, it’s a lifestyle.”
Located only 90 kms west of the community is a large diamond mine named the Victor Project, which is owned by De Beers Canada. In February 2006, the company started constructing the mine, which had its grand opening this July.
I began my search for some answers. Was the fish truly that contaminated? And if it was, why did the band wait three whole months to advise its people? Was De Beers causing the contamination? And what were the people to eat in a community of 1500 where there is barely a grocery store and where six apples cost almost $7? Chips and Coke though are not as expensive making them a cheap and accessible option for most.
After contacting De Beers, the Attawapiskat Band Office and several Attawapiskat residents, I began to realize that finding answers was going to be difficult. I contacted De Beers first and then the band office, both places recommended that I speak to Suzanne Barnes, Director of Lands and Resources for the Attawapiskat First Nation. When I first read her title, I was sure I would be speaking to an angry community member who would be out for justice for Attawapiskat’s people, but to the contrary, she seemed very tilted towards defending De Beers.
“The community is looking for a drinking water source and according to the tests the water from the river is in much better condition to drink than the groundwater around the community,” she said.
That sounds like good news, now what about the fish? “It has nothing to do with De Beers. That has always happened in nature and people can eat them like they always have. The warning of one fish per month was a misunderstanding. The fish are the same as they have always been.
“The mine has barely gotten into operation. The mine has just started dumping water so it hasn’t yet come into contact with anything. You could drink what falls out of the pipe although it might not taste that good!” she continued.
I soon found myself in a “he said, she said” situation, where De Beers was blaming Mother Nature and the people of Attawapiskat where pointing fingers at the mining company.
So I asked to see some evidence of the contamination. First I asked for the tests results done by Gartner Lee. The company refused to send them to me, stating that it works by contract and every contract is private.
So, I asked the Attawapiskat Band Office for a copy of the memo which was sent out to the community. After calling the office numerous times over a period of a month, I gave up and never did receive it. I then asked if Barnes could send me some test results that were taken before the Victor Project started and then recent test results of the water’s condition. That too, I never received. Although Barnes helped me a great deal with my research, I still don’t have proof to back up any of the statements that were done by De Beers or by residents of the community.
When I spoke to Jerry Nakogee, I received the same explanation of the situation that other community members had given me previously. “We know that there has always been mercury in our fish. But since the mine has been there, the mercury has gone up three times higher than before,” he said.
Since the people of Attawapiskat have little trust in the companies that do the testing, they have researched it themselves, and now believe they are not being respected. This is where the Impact Benefit Agreement comes in.
The agreement was created by the Attawapiskat band council and De Beers in order to protect Attawapiskat from the effects the mine might have on the surroundings. The IBA states that De Beers will help protect the land and the rivers around the town of Attawapiskat.
“The IBA in itself though is not helping the community members, it only benefits the company,” stated a frustrated Shisheesh.
But this isn’t what Barnes had to say about the agreement when asked if she felt it was being respected. “I am responsible for chapter 7 of the IBA which concerns environmental issues, and I feel that it is being respected. Any issue that has come up has been quickly resolved.”
What I came to understand was that people from the community are being accused of overreacting to the whole situation. According to Barnes, the memo sent out by the Deputy Chief after a meeting with Gartner Lee was based on research done by one person who never visited Attawapiskat and did tests on the water in a comfy Toronto lab. People were simply misunderstanding the memo and there was never any reason for a warning to be sent out.
Hmm this seems fishy indeed… If this was all true then I wonder why Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Hall refused to attend the mine’s grand opening in July. When I tried to contact her, Hall was too busy to talk to me.
“People don’t like change, no matter where you live,” explained Barnes. “There are many people around here running around with their own agendas saying that they have Native People interests at heart when really they don’t.”
So here I have it then. Some people told me that De Beers is responsible for the mercury level in the Attawapiskat River. Then I spoke to Barnes who said that this was an overreaction and that everything was just fine. I would certainly like to be able to draw my own conclusions but without tests results, memos or any type of proof, this is difficult for me to do!
All I know is that the people of Attawapiskat need to eat, not just anything but their traditional foods that they’ve been eating for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Whether the fish is contaminated by the Victor Project or not, someone needs to step up and provide the local people with another option. While the De Beers mine workers feast on meat, potatoes and vegetables every night, an entire Nation only 90 kms away are being told not to eat their main staple anymore – or at least not as much.
“We are not asking for money and we are not trying to be difficult,” said Shisheesh. “What we demand is food so that my people can eat.”