A Life's Story
December 01, 2018
A calm, powerful advocate
Former chief of Ontario First Nation was longtime champion for residents suffering from mercury contamination
By Alexandra Paul
With glistening waters the colour of strong tea and stands of thick black spruce, Grassy Narrows sits amid some of the most stunning boreal forest in the world.
The Wabigoon and English river systems that run through it track hundreds of kilometres north of Kenora, through northwestern Ontario and the Winnipeg and Nelson rivers, to Hudson Bay.
For decades, the natural beauty in this Ojibwa First Nation 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora hid an ugly secret; it would rise to the surface every so often, and then slip back out of sight.
Winnipeg and the rest of Canada can thank Steve Fobister for keeping the issue afloat.
As recently as 2017, Ontario secured $85 million for a mercury cleanup. A care home for mercury-poisoning victims is being built there, thanks to him.
Fobister’s longtime fellow advocate, then-Grassy Narrows chief Simon Fobister, called himself a “happy camper for now” with the latest cleanup, but noted there were still concerns about ongoing leaching of the neurotoxin into the water system.
When Steve Fobister, himself a respected former chief of Grassy and grand chief of the Ontario Chiefs, died at Lake of the Woods District Hospital on Oct. 11 at age 66, he was crippled with mysterious neurological symptoms he had described as killing him “a piece at a time.”
Given the history of the place, his family called for an inquest.
In the ’60s, a pulp and paper mill in Dryden dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury in the English and Wabigoon rivers.
The contamination killed off a thriving fishery and devastated Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (formerly known as Whitedog) First Nations.
Financial compensation packages in the ’80s proved almost impossible to access. That was followed by timber clear cutting, the discovery of drums of mercury buried in the boreal and a damning report documenting the effects of the contamination on people.
For each of those battles, Grassy had Steve Fobister to stand up for them.
“Our beloved Steve died without ever getting the closure of having a government minister look into his eye and admit that he was poisoned by mercury,” Fobister’s niece Sylvia Wapioke told The Canadian Press after his death.
Fobister was born in Dryden on Feb. 22, 1952. He is survived by his wife, Katherine Land, and a large family of children and grandchildren.
People who knew him and admired him say his life was shaped by mercury poisoning and intertwined with political and environmental circles because of it. Both the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail paid tribute to his national profile with obituaries.
“Steve Fobister was the living embodiment of the effects of that (mercury pollution) crime that is still being perpetrated against the people of Grassy Narrows, White Dog and the people of the Wabigoon and English river systems,” outspoken northern Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus told the Free Press.
“Grassy was such a horror story (that) people assume it can’t still be going on. Steve was a powerful voice. Canadians have a really short attention span for the stuff done to Indigenous people. He kept bringing us back.”
Fobister remembered what it was like before mercury poisoned the land and the people.
He grew up on the land, fishing, hunting and trapping when Grassy Narrows was almost fully self-sufficient, said David Sone, an environmental consultant who became a friend.
“It’s nearly impossible to capture the measure of the man who was so many things to so many people,” Sone said.
Fobister’s friend Robert Williamson recalled the violent death of Steve’s brother Patrick, a friend of Williamson’s, back half a century ago, and how it changed Fobister.
Fobister, then a youth counsellor, was the first to reach the scene where a fight had broken out. He couldn’t revive his younger brother.
“Patrick died from a gunshot. Grassy in the ’70s was a bad time for young people. It was the time that the mercury was discovered and it created a lot of social problems. It was the worst time. And Steve was one of the workers who was right in the middle of (it) trying to look after the youth,” Williamson said.
“He wanted to deal with it right away, even though he was young. He could see a need for that.”
Mercury poisoning accumulates in the body and is known as Minamata disease, named after a Japanese coastal town where the release of mercury from a chemical factory in the ’50s accumulated in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea and was eaten by the local population. Cat, dog, pig and human deaths from mercury poisoning continued for more than 30 years. It causes neurological symptoms that mimic other diseases and it’s often misdiagnosed.
Canada is known as the other place in the world with lethal cases of mercury poisoning, known as Ontario Minamata disease.
“It’s really obvious what’s happening, but the diagnoses that are being put on people are, like, Parkinson’s. The doctors kind of say, ‘it’s really hard to diagnose mercury poisoning,’” said Williamson, who said he’s sick too.
Fobister was given a diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which slowly paralyzes the body. Fobister had to hold his jaw up to be able to chew food at the end, the same thing that is happening to Williamson.
“The mercury that is flowing in our bodies is hard to fix, even though they’re going to be cleaning up that river, the mercury — we’re carrying it in our bodies — and it’s still affecting us,” Williamson said.
Fobister had a way of speaking directly that could come across as shocking, and he didn’t spare himself, even if it meant being the point of a spear in an environmental battle.
His last public stand came with a hunger strike in 2014 at Queen’s Park in Toronto, in an effort to halt clear cutting on Grassy Narrows traditional land and about the same time a 100-page report documenting the devastation surfaced in Ontario.
“I’m dying anyway, one piece at a time,” Fobister bluntly told reporters who questioned why he would undertake a fast when he was so obviously frail.
Ontario Chiefs regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald was a friend of Fobister’s and she remembered him as a soft-spoken man with a powerful presence.
“I met him when we were both chiefs and we were in different parts of the province battling the same company... and both our issues were about clear cutting in our traditional lands. We had a number of phone conversations and we planned some protests together and one of them was on Parliament Hill,” Archibald said.
“When you go into battle, you want somebody like Steve Fobister, who has the calm, grounding energy yet is fearless. We think of power as being loud, but I think it was more powerful because he wasn’t loud,” she said.
Archibald and Angus recently visited Grassy Narrows and they were struck by the place.
“It’s hard to imagine the water was so polluted and the fish and wildlife were so damaged when you look at the land, because it’s actually quite beautiful. They have some of the best sunsets, you know. There’s a reason they call it sunset country,” Archibald said.
Angus said the beauty makes it even harder to fathom the devastation there.
“When you drive up there and see the incredible beauty of the water, it makes you wonder what kind of nation lets the water be polluted to the extent that half a century later, children are still dying,” he said.
Williamson said it’s important to understand his friend lived up to his name and that his name was part of the boreal.
“The man who gave him that name had a dream about snow, like in a whirlwind and that’s where his name came from,” Williamson said.
Fobister’s Anishinaabe name was Pa pii waa nii mo petung, referring to the winter winds that whip up the snow. Resembling mini-tornadoes, they can stop you in your tracks and they are very much a part of life in the boreal.