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Burgeoning Courage and Power: Faces of Youth Activism in Grassy Narrows

Jenae Turtle, a Grassy Narrows youth, at the June 20, 2019, River Run march. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Jenae Turtle, a Grassy Narrows youth, at the June 20, 2019, River Run march. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

For almost 50 years, Grassy Narrows First Nation has been forced to deal with mercury poisoning as a result of industrial pollution. For almost the same amount of time, the people of Grassy Narrows have been engaged in acts of protest and resistance with the intention of regaining the health and autonomy of their traditional lands.

From engaging in letter-writing campaigns, to participating in hunger strikes, and everything in between, the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation have employed a number of tactics to fight for their community.

The River Run event—a march through Toronto intended to draw attention to the struggles faced by Grassy Narrows—on June 20, 2019, was just the tip of the community’s activism iceberg. But, it provides young activists in the community with a stage where their voices can be heard.

A Grassy Narrows youth, with a flag in his hand, helps to lead his community through the streets of Toronto. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

A Grassy Narrows youth, with a flag in his hand, helps to lead his community through the streets of Toronto. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

At the River Run event, young people in the community were given the opportunity to lead the march through the streets of downtown Toronto and advocate for their community.

Jenae Turtle (left) stands before a crowd and speaks about her community while Chrissy Isaacs (right) stands below her, filming Jenae's speech. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Jenae Turtle (left) stands before a crowd and speaks about her community while Chrissy Isaacs (right) stands below her, filming Jenae's speech. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Youth activism has become the norm for this community of fighters. Like many others, Chrissy Isaacs, a vocal activist for her community, started her activism career at a young age.

“I started in the 1990s when I was just a teenager. We did the blockade for Grassy to stop the clear cutting. I started speaking out about all of the environmental racism in our traditional territory,” said Isaacs in an interview following the River Run event.

One of the most prominent moves Isaacs made as a young activist was her participation in her community’s logging blockade. In 2002, in a youth-led movement, Grassy Narrows established a blockade on a prominent logging road with the hopes of ending the clearcutting on their traditional lands. In 2017, the provincial government forbade logging in the area until 2022, but the Grassy Narrows community is ready to re-establish their blockade if necessary.

Jenae Turtle and her fellow youths take their place at the front of the march and help to lead their community through Toronto. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Jenae Turtle and her fellow youths take their place at the front of the march and help to lead their community through Toronto. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Isaacs believes the youth of today are also keenly aware of the issues that face their community.

“I think that for the young people, they are very aware of what’s going on in our community," said Isaacs. "And that's a really good thing because when I was younger I had questions. I remember being 8 years old and wondering and just asking, ‘Why do we live like this?’” 

Paris Meekis, a Grassy Narrows teen, stands before the gathered crowd and speaks passionately about her community. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Paris Meekis, a Grassy Narrows teen, stands before the gathered crowd and speaks passionately about her community. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

One of the Grassy Narrows youths to speak at the River Run event was Paris Meekis, a Grassy Narrows teenager. 

“Holy moly! There’s so many people,” began Meekis with a bit of a laugh. “I’ve lived in Grassy Narrows my whole life and just seeing that we have so much support out here it makes me happy,” she continued, speaking before a crowd of supporters.

Paris Meekis poses with sign which reads, " 10 tons mercury dumped - Anishinabek poisoned." Image by Shelby Gilson. Canada, 2019.

Paris Meekis poses with sign which reads, " 10 tons mercury dumped - Anishinabek poisoned." Image by Shelby Gilson. Canada, 2019.

“For years now we’ve been ignored. The government didn’t want to do anything about it. We’ve suffered so much and I don’t think we should suffer much longer. We need a change now. We need a future. A brighter, better future for our future children. Future generations, our brothers, our sisters, everybody that’s here,” said Meekis.

Jenae Turtle and other Grassy Narrows youth wield signs as they lead their community's march. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Jenae Turtle and other Grassy Narrows youth wield signs as they lead their community's march. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Another Grassy Narrows youth who spoke, Jenae Turtle, seemed a bit more nervous in her delivery, but was just as strong in her convictions.

“Where’s that mercury home that the government promised us a long time ago? We’ve been fighting for a long time and nothing has been done,” said Turtle, as her voice shook. “We’ve been talking a lot but no one has done anything about it.”

A group of Grassy Narrows girls, including Jenae Turtle (second from right), gather together as they march. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

A group of Grassy Narrows girls, including Jenae Turtle (second from right), gather together as they march. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

In addition to being given a speaking platform, the Grassy Narrows youth led the march through Toronto. Whether they spoke in front of crowds or just marched alongside their community members, the youth of Grassy Narrows are ready to take on the fight.

Grassy Narrows youth gather together at the front of the march as they wait for their elders and supporters to catch up. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Grassy Narrows youth gather together at the front of the march as they wait for their elders and supporters to catch up. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

“Our voice matters,” said Turtle, with little tinge of the nervousness heard previously.

Jenae Turtle looks back at the marchers behind her, waving a Mohawk Warrior Flag often used to represent unity among Indigenous people. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

Jenae Turtle looks back at the marchers behind her, waving a Mohawk Warrior Flag often used to represent unity among Indigenous people. Canada, 2019. Image by Shelby Gilson.

While the youth are ready to be heard, the need for them to be heard is heartbreaking for some, including Isaacs.

“Today, the young people that spoke—that touched my heart—but at the same time it broke my heart because the young ones shouldn’t have to fight. This should have been dealt with a long time ago.”