Book Review

A Poison Stronger Than Love:
The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community.
Anastasia M. Shkilnyk, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985: 274 pp. $12.95

Reviewed by David McRobert

In a celebrated essay, Gad Horowitz once observed that liberal thought in Canada has been either anemic or parasitic. Arguably, this comment aptly applies to the dozens of Ph.D. and Master theses on the "Indian Problem" that have been written by Canadian scholars over the past few decades. Very few of these actually have an impact on policy-makers. Moreover, Indian communities have often decried their subjection to the whims of researchers. This new book by A. Shkilnyk, based on her Ph.D. work, has the potential to impact on policy-makers but it unfortunately still is a largely parasitic and partly anemic work in the tradition of liberal thought in Canada.

That said, it should be admitted this is an ambitious book. It attempts to synthesize a wide range of materials and will provide many readers with insights into the destruction of aboriginal peoples and their communities. Shkilnyk documents the horrible problems experienced by the Ojibwa people living on the Grassy Narrows/Whitedog Reserve over the past twenty-five years. She shows how their lives were devastated by changes that (despite public misconceptions) really took place in two phases.

The first phase began in the early 1960's when the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) attempted to provide residents on the isolated reserve with the benefits of modern industrial society. In the process, the well-intentioned planners from DIAND and Health and Welfare Canada completely undermined the existing social bonds and balances that existed in the community. Shkilnyk shows that modernization destroyed the traditional way of life which tied Grassy and Whitedog residents to the land through hunting and trapping, guiding, fishing and subsistence agriculture. With access to unemployment benefits, alcohol and other disruptive and previously unavailable influences the Ojibwa became vulnerable to manipulation for taxi drivers, bootleggers and other exploitative whites from nearby communities such as Kenora.

The second phase of the disruption process is more familiar to most Canadians. The poisoning of the English-Waibagoon River System with tonnes of mercury by the Dryden Pulp mill in 1970 has become a national embarrassment. A best-selling book has been written, a play on the problem toured the country in the 1970's, and the media have documented the tragedy in graphic detail. However, as Shkilnyk shows, all of this has been to no avail because the problems of violence, alcohol abuse and chronic unemployment faced by this community remain unresolved.

To support her argument, Shkilnyk provides an overview of the social ecology of the community prior to modernization. She maintains that in the pre-contact situation. The Ojibwa peoples approached their relationship with the community in a more balanced fashion. Aboriginal perceptions of and relationships in space and time fostered a mystical reverence for nature and this reverence was reinforced by myth and ritual. Thus it is the breakdown of these relationships that explains a large degree of the disruption experienced in Grassy following modernization. For example, housing projects moved the community into a new area and provided residences that were spaced much closer together. This type of change broke down all sorts of rituals and spatial relations that had previously been important at Grassy.

Through this melding of description and analysis, Shkilnyk compares and contrasts the pre- and post- modernization communities. Her analysis is accomplished in part through reference to a wealth of statistical information in various tables in numerous sections of the book. The statistics cited lend considerable support to her argument, particularly those which compare the Indian and non-Indian suicide rates in the Lake of the Woods Area. Shkilnyk employs these statistics to show that the Indians had a suicide rate which was almost 10 times higher than that experienced by nearby white communities. Unfortunately in some cases the statistics are dated. Shkilnyk does not clarify that these statistics are interesting primarily in a historical context and may not (indeed, probably do not) reflect the situation in Grassy right now.

The other key data is drawn from vivid passages in Shkilnyk's "diary," which she kept while she was working in Grassy, and the interviews she conducted for the Band with various researchers and government officials. At times she seems to employ the journalistic technique of condensation of interviews and observations of the residents in order to heighten the drama of the tale being documented. I have serious doubts about some of the passages Shkilnyk claims are from her diary. While the events may have unfolded in the way she claims they did, it is apparent that her "diary" has been extensively rewritten and edited for this publication. A similar criticism could be directed at the "interviews" she sprinkles throughout the text.

In effect, what emerges from the painful passages in the book is a ringing endorsement of the ancient notion that the worst pain one can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing. Shkilnyk's position throughout is truly tragic - she sees what is wrong with the community and knows how it could be better but she nor the others in government responsible for dealing with the problem seem to think that anything can be done about it. Apart from a few cryptic passages, she is unable to describe the alternative approaches that might have been pursued by the government in resolution of the Grassy Narrows crisis.

For example, Shkilnyk's comments on compensation schemes are rhetorical rather than illuminating: "After more than a decade of meetings..., the Grassy Narrows people have gained little more than platitudinous programs designed to placate." (p.205-6). While one cannot deny the validity of this observation, it would have been instructive if Shkilnyk had provided more detail on how exactly both the federal and provincial governments evaded responsibility. As John Swaigen observes in a report prepared for the Law Reform Commission of Canada in 1981 entitled Compensation of Pollution Victims in Canada, Grassy Narrows is a classic example of avoidance of compensation of pollution victims. Moreover, Shkilnyk points out, they refused to admit that mercury poisoning could cause health problems until 1974 when media coverage and public pressure forced the release of an interdepartmental Task Force Report on the effects of mercury. The record of the Province on the matter has been abysmal and at times one can hardly believe the arrogance and stupidity of certain bureaucrats involved in the Grassy Narrows situation.

The federal government, for its part, has fared only slightly better. Considering their fiduciary obligations to aboriginal peoples (confirmed recently by the Supreme Court of Canada), one could argue that, in fact, they performed much worse. Shkilnyk argues that garbled communications between the two levels of government effectively blockaded efforts on the part of various federal departments to wrestle with the full human and environmental costs of the tragedy in an adequate manner.

Shkilnyk contends that the only way to solve the problems of Grassy Narrows is to break the "deadlock of their marginality." She advocates provision of new land for traditional pursuits and the development of new housing and other facilities. However such an approach seems reminiscent of the original well-intentioned interventions in the 1960's. The paradox in all this is the the so-called "Indian Problem" that Shkilnyk is trying to address is rooted in white culture's attitudes and values of domination. The only long-term solution that could help communities like Grassy is movement towards self-government along the lines proposed in the recent report by Keith Penner and supported by numerous aboriginal groups.

The book shows clearly that a fundamental reorientation in public policy with respect to both environmental regulation and Indian administration must transpire to avoid the problems that arise in situations such as Grassy Narrows. However, I am far from optimistic that the required changes can occur within the parameters set out by Shkilnyk in her book. Her lack of critical analysis of structural barriers to resolution of the Grassy situation and the manipulative politics of the case is disappointing. Moreover, as a student schooled in the development theories of Harold Innis, I was dismayed that the marginalization of native northerners was not presented in terms of metropolitan domination of the hinterland.

In this respect, the Grassy Narrows situation illustrates the paradox of the distribution of the benefits and externalities of staples resource development in the Canadian Hinterland. As Innis observed, hinterland areas draw the very essence of their development in Canada from the metropole, yet that dependence tends to produce an unbalanced distribution of the costs of development and also stifles attempts by the hinterland to correct the imbalance through, for example, the promotion of a Conserver Society in the Metropole. Thus, a massive discrepancy exists between the capacity of many northern communities to respond to pollution impacts and/or fluctuations in the demands for their resources.

In the end, one is left with the uneasy feeling that this book is too good to be true. Literally. Shkilnyk's attempt to mass-market the pain of Grassy Narrows seems crass and one wonders what exactly the book can accomplish at this point. I hope it will be viewed as a historical treatise by the community members themselves. It is unfortunate that they have to have their personal tragedies revealed to the international community through publications of this kind in order to get the attention their horrible situation deserves.

(David McRobert is a Fellow in the Faculty of Environmental Studies
and a 2nd year student at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University.)

Review published in the Akwekon Journal (1985)