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‘We are more than mercury’: The youth from a place known for poisoned land and water are sending a message

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The Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, also known as Grassy Narrows, is an Indigenous nation in northwestern Ontario, an hour north of Kenora, Ont.

It’s an Anishinabek community with a rich history of multicultural hunters, trappers, fishers and harvesters of the land. But in recent history, it’s been launched into the national spotlight as the First Nation poisoned by mercury.

Song written, recorded and filmed in Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Media coverage of the dumping, which began in the early 1960s, has exposed the world to the community’s incredible suffering caused by contamination of the land, water and fish, the consumption of which has made many of its members sick. (About 1,000 people live on the reserve.)

In April 2016, with support from N’we Jinan, youth in Grassy Narrows — including Darwin Fobister and Hailey Loon — released an original song called “Home to Me,” which draws attention to the community’s struggle with deforestation and contamination, but also highlights the strength they draw from their deep connection to the environment. N’we Jinan is a nonprofit organization that brings a mobile recording studio into communities across North America to help youth express themselves through song with professional guidance.

Today, the youth have a message for the public: “We are more than mercury.”

DARWIN FOBISTER, 21: ‘I decided to work with Grassy’s youth because they saw me as a leader’

Darwin Fobister on the Grassy Narrows reserve. He writes about working with youth: "I can't say kids here have everything, but I see everything in them."
Darwin Fobister on the Grassy Narrows reserve. He writes about working with youth: « I can’t say kids here have everything, but I see everything in them. »

I didn’t find out until the age of 5 about the mercury poisoning. I started having seizures — my mother’s umbilical cord had a high amount of mercury in it. The doctors knew when I was born that I wasn’t a normal baby.

When I was 8, my grandma and my dad told me everything. They said my parents ate a lot of fish, and explained about the pulp mill, which dumped mercury into the river system in the 1960s.

They told me we were sick.

Every day I have headaches, and I can’t feel my hands sometimes. They get numb. My speech was way off, too — I had to take special education.

But I never let mercury bother me too much. We need to move forward.

Now, I’m the recreational activator at the community’s multi-purpose complex. I put on activities for the kids to give them a brighter future and an active life.

Eight-year-old Patience Fobister takes a swing during a home game against the Whitedog Thunderhawks last summer.
Eight-year-old Patience Fobister takes a swing during a home game against the Whitedog Thunderhawks last summer.

I decided to work with Grassy’s youth because they saw me as a leader. They looked up to me because I never turned to alcohol and drugs.

I can’t say kids here have everything, but I see everything in them. They’re involved in their culture, they’re learning how to get the community back together instead of separated. They enjoy the moccasin game; they pick wild rice and learn how to process and cook it.

I see leaders around here. I don’t see mercury. When I think about our people, I think about our hunting, fishing and trapping — the cultural practices we still live today.

The media’s focus on mercury means we’re no longer alone. We have the world’s support and it makes everybody in Grassy feel stronger.

But our community is not all about mercury. We don’t want to think of a dying tree, we want to think of a living tree — healthy with growing green leaves. That’s the truth. I enjoy my life. I enjoy my fishing and my great-grandfather’s teachings.

Part of my happy story is filmmaking. I started taking pictures and videos as a teenager because I love nature and the beautiful sites around the reserve. I take them to bring out beauty in the community, so people don’t think that they have nothing.

Water rushes over the rocks near a waterfall in the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation's traditional territory on a June day.
Water rushes over the rocks near a waterfall in the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation’s traditional territory on a June day.

My friends from around the world like my videos. They start to see what’s really going on in Grassy, the positives and the negatives. My work is showing people that there are youth here who are interested in these kinds of things, and in honouring the land and the water the way our elders did — but with the new tools available to us.

HAILEY LOON, 17: ‘If I started a tourism business I would show people there’s so much more’

Grade 11 student Hailey Loon is a hiphop dancer and writer, seen here outside Sakatcheway Anishinabe School in Grassy Narrows. A friend had heard about her reserve. "I had to tell him it's not all about mercury; not everyone is affected by it. He just said, 'Wow.' "
Grade 11 student Hailey Loon is a hiphop dancer and writer, seen here outside Sakatcheway Anishinabe School in Grassy Narrows. A friend had heard about her reserve. « I had to tell him it’s not all about mercury; not everyone is affected by it. He just said, ‘Wow.’ «

My mom never ate fish when she was pregnant with me. I grew up mostly with my grandparents, and fish was a regular part of my diet.

But I don’t have any mercury symptoms. I’m lucky. It’s hard watching other people suffer from the symptoms.

There’s a lot more going on here than mercury problems though. I met a friend once from Ignace, Ont., and he was doing a school project on Grassy Narrows. He told me that all he could find online was mercury reports and news articles about it.

I had to tell him it’s not all about mercury; not everyone is affected by it. He just said, “Wow.” I told him my story and how I’m not really poisoned by the mercury.

This is my story: I play sports, walk around in the bush and hang out at home with my mom and we bead together. I play Scrabble at my kookum’s (grandmother’s) and we talk about life.

Last year, I joined a program called Outside Looking In (OLI) because I needed a high school credit. OLI brings dance education to Indigenous youth and their communities.

Rehearsals were tough, but I’m really glad I stayed because it was a new experience for me. I met a lot of people and it was amazing. I never thought I could dance until OLI came here. But I motivated myself to learn and try hard.

We went to Toronto in May and danced onstage in front of like 2,000 people. I feel really proud of myself and I know I inspired kids because they came up to me after I got back and asked me how my experience was, and how it was at camp, and how it felt.

I’ll probably do it again this year. If there’s one thing I would want people to know about Grassy Narrows, it’s that Grassy Narrows is a beautiful place with beautiful scenery. If I had to start up a tourism business, I would show people that there’s so much more.

DARCY WILLIAMSON, 27: ‘I want to become a paramedic or get into nursing, and bring that back’

Grass dancer Darcy Williamson performs at the Iskatewizaagegan First Nation (Shoal Lake 39) Summer Pow-Wow in August. "When people see me, I don't want them to see someone poisoned by mercury. I want them to see a culturally oriented community member."
Grass dancer Darcy Williamson performs at the Iskatewizaagegan First Nation (Shoal Lake 39) Summer Pow-Wow in August. « When people see me, I don’t want them to see someone poisoned by mercury. I want them to see a culturally oriented community member. »

I’ve been playing hockey since I was 4 years old, so I know what it’s like outside of the community and I know what’s going on inside the community.

I played in Kenora from Grade 9 to the end of high school, played for Team Ontario at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships, and then played junior A in Sault Ste. Marie, Toronto and Thunder Bay.

And I did hear stuff about Grassy brought up in those cities. I heard about the mercury problem and the forestry, both good and bad. But sports brought me out of my shell — I gained more confidence and started to find out that mercury didn’t have to be a huge factor in my life.

I feel like the media only covers the bad stuff here. Why not talk about the powwows? The cultural camp that happened over the summer? The fish derbies? The way our community and school came together during the Humboldt Broncos tragedy?

I wish they could find a balance in coverage, just like life — life needs a balance between the good and the bad.

When people see me, I don’t want them to see someone poisoned by mercury. I want them to see a culturally oriented community member.

I’m also a grass dancer, and when I dance, I dance to feel good about myself. Or when someone is asking me for help or advice, when I enter the circle to dance I pray for them and for their healing. It’s a good path to go on.

I went to Lakehead University for a while and studied Indigenous learning. I did pre-health science, and ultimately, I think I want to become a paramedic or get into nursing, and bring that back to the community — something that’s really needed.

For now, I’m the phys-ed teacher at our community school. One of my goals is to bring all the hockey knowledge that I have to the students here and show them there’s a lot more out there than what they see here.

Published with support from Journalists for Human Rights and the Ontario Trillium Foundation

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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