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Keepers of the Water

Anishinaabe water protectors from the front lines share their knowledge and wisdom

by David Gray-Donald

From left: Vanessa Gray, Judy Da Silva, Waawaate Fobister. Photo: Fatin Chowdhury
From left: Vanessa Gray, Judy Da Silva, Waawaate Fobister. Photo: Fatin Chowdhury

Vanessa Gray and Judy Da Silva live over a thousand kilometres apart, and are separated in age by decades. But the two Anishinaabe-kwe (women) have faced similar struggles to protect their community's waters.

Da Silva, a clan mother from Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) near Kenora, ON, has long fought to have the mercury dumped by industry into the community’s waterways in the 1960s cleaned up, and against clear-cut logging (read her account of the ongoing blockade). A new study by Japanese scientists shows over 90% of the community has symptoms of mercury poisoning, adding to the mounting pressure the Ontario government is feeling to, after decades of inaction, take steps towards remediation.

Gray, from Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, ON, is a community scholar, perennial organizer of the Toxic Tour of the “Chemical Valley”, and a persistent force confronting the fossil fuel industry. Along with two other women, Gray faces serious criminal charges for allegedly shutting down Enbridge’s Line 9 tar sands pipeline on traditional Anishanaabe land last winter. A fundraising campaign,, has been launched to help cover legal costs.

The two were visiting Toronto in September and spoke at an event, along with the Japanese team of scientists and Waawaate Fobister. Fobister is an award-winning playwright from Grassy Narrows who now calls Toronto home.

Here the three Anishinaabe speakers share their wisdom about protecting the water.

Vanessa Gray, Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Age 23, Bear Clan

The water is what connects us. Even though I don’t come from Grassy Narrows – I come from another Anishanaabe community where we were also historically fishers and used the great lakes as a means for travel and trade and it was just our way of life to migrate around the great lakes for my people before colonization – there’s still that connection to the water. Being close to it makes a difference.


Vanessa Gray at the River Run for Grassy Narrows in June 2016. Photo Credit: Fatin Chowdhury.

I was born into a place called the “Chemical Valley” where there are 60 high-emitting facilities in a very small area surrounding my community. I grew up with companies like Shell and Suncor and Imperial Oil and Enbridge always spilling and releasing [chemicals] without [my] knowledge of why.

My relationship with the water was always different because it’s dangerous, just like it is in Grassy Narrows and many other Indigenous communities. I think even though the water was toxic and I was taught to not touch it, it’s important to always appreciate and acknowledge the sacredness of the water, even though it’s not in the greatest shape.

And with appreciation we have to respect it enough to protect it.

The Canadian government continues to, and has always put effort and money into, shaming Indigenous people and silencing Indigenous people. In my own family there was resistance. My great-grandfather put a gun to the Indian Agent when he came to pick up my grandma to go to residential school. A lot of people didn’t make it back from residential school.

Even though it was really terrible before, when they were aggressively trying to take the Indian from the child, they’re still working really hard to make things worse for us. We’re seeing new pipeline projects, we’re seeing old pipelines with new products.

In my resistance, giving the real information about what companies are doing to my territory felt empowering. But it’s obviously not enough, and it’s much too late to try to educate every single person in Canada because there’s too much ignorance. And that’s why we need to have direct action. That’s why we need to be testing our water, and testing our hair [for toxins], and our bodies.

Because as much time and effort as we’re putting into this, industry has a lot more money, better lawyers, and they’re very aggressive and terrible. I think they have no limits when it comes to destruction. And that’s why we need to have no limits to resisting and to fighting back.

On that note, we need to take care of ourselves and each other. And those who are on the front line are putting a lot more effort into this than you think.  I have a legal case happening right now because I allegedly shut down Line 9 (an Enbridge pipeline on traditional Anishanaabe territory). As it stands now I’m being charged with mischief endangering the lives of others and mischief over $5000, which are not light charges (note: Gray faces up to 25 years in prison for the charges).

We have a preliminary trial date on February 24th, so we’re going to ask people to come and support us in Sarnia where that will be taking place.

(There is an ongoing fundraising campaign for Gray’s legal fees –


Judy Da Silva, Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) First Nation

Clan Mother, Lynx Clan

The fight is never-ending to protect the water in all ways – from mining, from the oil, and pipelines. It’s all connected. [It is] also [connected] to Indigenous women, who are disappearing as we speak, getting abducted and disappearing. It’s all connected to how mother earth is suffering. All over the world it’s always women that are getting attacked. What I always say is my daughters have a target on their back. I’m always scared for them. And that’s how I feel about the earth, and our water.

It’s like Vanessa was saying, how her water was so toxic she couldn’t use it, that’s the point we’re getting to. And yet we’re like 1500 miles from here. It’s a semi-isolated community and yet we bear the brunt of industrial extraction on our lands, and it’s way up there!

Where Vanessa is, she bears the brunt of that resource extraction. It looks like you’re in a different planet with the refineries. We have that solidarity together for the water, we all suffer from the destruction of the water all over.


Judy Da Silva after speaking in Toronto, September 2016. Photo credit: Fatin Chowdhury.

You can do something. You can tell your families about this. Let’s be in solidarity with the Dakota Access pipeline protestors – er – protectors. Let’s show the government that it’s not just people at the camp, it’s people all over the world. So that’s a way that you can help us. If you can’t leave your job or can’t leave your home because of now money you can do the facebook thing.

Do memes. Like, “Water Is Sacred” and “Stand with Grassy”. “No Dakota Access Pipelines”. “Legal Defense Fund for Vanessa Gray”.

It may not do anything, but it shows people in the world we are against water pollution.

The other thing you can do is, when you’re at home, when you drink that water, when you’re making that juice for the child, you pray for the water you say “I love you water, we need you water”. Just a simple thing like that.

We’re not the only ones. There’s people all over Turtle Island that fight to protect the land, and they’ll never be acknowledged. There’s a lot of people that are out there right now, and they don’t get the media attention, but they’re out there protecting the forest, and even the animals, and our communities. I just want to acknowledge they are out there, wherever they are.

For Grassy, we are still in talks with the government. We had a fish fry on the parliament building lawns (in 2012) and we had Grassy fish there, mercury poisoned fish. We had a nice meal there and we had name tags for people to come out and eat from the parliament buildings. Kathleen Wynne came out and she started the Mercury Working Group. She was minister of Aboriginal Affairs at the time. But now she is the Premier of Ontario and she could actually get the river cleaned up, and she’s not. So that’s where we need to pressure her and say, “now you are the premier of Ontario and you could get the river cleaned up in Grassy Narrows.”


Waawaate Fobister

Age 30, Sturgeon Clan

I went to Japan and went to Minamata (the location for which Minamata disease – merury poisonin – is named) because I wanted to learn what’s going on in with our people [in Grassy Narrows] and make art of it, because I’m a storyteller. My dad’s a storyteller, and his father was a story-teller. We come from an oral history place. We’re talking about things, and then bring it down and pass it, pass it, pass it, pass down through the stories. It’s just like a river; it goes through us, through our blood, we go through it, and tell the stories. It continues so we have that knowledge.


Waawaate Fobister after speaking in Toronto, September 2016. Photo credit: Fatin Chowdhury.

And the thing that really gets me miffed is the systematic racism of the Canadian government and within the hospitals. Basically it goes through all forms: the foster care, the health-care system, the justice system. It’s a big problem. And they’re just ignoring it. And they deny it. If I go to the hospital they think that I’m, I don’t know, a drug addict or whatever, so they ignore me. And the [mercury] affects my central nervous system. Some people have tremors, and they lose tastes, smells, different things.

But the arts is very strong. We can be storytellers, because we always need storytellers.

These statements have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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David Gray-Donald (David Gray-Donald)
montreal and toronto
Member since Septembre 2014


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