I am now on the Voyageur trail in Northern Ontario and for the next three weeks my friend Jenica will be hiking it with me. My next blog post will be all about our adventure on the Voyageur trail. But todays blog post is about two Grandmothers I have met in Ontario. The first grandmother is Francis Combs who I met in September of 2016. The second is Grandmother Isabelle who we met yesterday in Serpent River.
I met Francis the day I arrived in Toronto. Both Ann and I stayed with one of Ann’s oldest and dearest friends, Catherine Combs. They know other from their childhood days in Hamilton. Both Ann’s father and Francis were United Church Ministers. That night Francis made us a beautiful meal and later we filmed her as we have many grandmothers on this journey.
One of the questions I asked Francis was why she became a Minister.
She told me she knew she wanted to be a Minister when she was 12. She even remembered the day. It was the day the USA dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. She lived in Texas.
“ I was 12 years old when the second world war was over and the Atom bomb was dropped. That was very pivotal for me. I had a very bad feeling about it. Up till that point I had thought I would be a scientist. When the atom bomb was dropped I thought, I don’t want to be a scientist. We have enough science. We know enough about all that. We need more love in this world.”
Yesterday, Ann, Jenica and I went to visit Grandmother Isabelle in Serpent River. We were welcomed into her home she shares with her partner Blaine who kindly made us all tea. Isabelle is the only native grandmother that has her own retreat centre in Canada. It is called the Grandmother’s Lodge. Wharncliffe Wilderness Retreat Learning Centre.
“So that’s what I do,”, she explained, “ I just gather these grandmothers up and we start talking about the things we need to talk about. We have a lot of murdered and missing women, girls, boys, men, here in Canada and what we know is there is a lot of racial discrimination in that…, society in general see’s us as less than because we are brown and we think differently. Our girls have gone onto jobs as lawyers, doctors, some have phd’s, but still they face this discrimination…that’s what we have to change, so it is a little bit more equal. So that our voices are also heard. “
Isabelle and Blaine explained to us that the Serpent River people are the Anishinaabe people that have been on this land for over 12000 years. The community today is on the shores of the Serpent River and close to Lake Huron. They are surrounded by fresh water but the people in Serpent River are drinking from plastic water bottles because their water has been contaminated with radioactive waste. If you follow the Serpent River upstream you get to a community called Elliot Lake. This used to be where their people would go to in the winter months to get away from the cold winds that come off the great lakes in the winter.
In the 1950’s large quantities of Uranium deposits were found there just as the cold war was kicking into high gear and America and Russia were in a nuclear arms race. By the 1970’s Elliot Lake became the Uranium mining capital of the world. To get one kilogram of Uranium you have to dig up and process one tonne of uranium ore and 99% of that ends up as radioactive waste. These ‘tailings’ often end up in man made ponds. In August of 1993 an accidental spill occurred after a power failure at one of the mines that allowed 2 million litres of uranium tailings to spill and contaminate the water source. 90 Kilometres of the Serpent River became contaminated with radioactive waste.
By the time my tea cup was empty I had tears in my eyes. I still do.
I grew up fearful of nuclear war. I was born in the 1960’s and as a kid lived in fear of the worlds destruction. But the fact is we are living in a nuclear war. Since the 1950’ s over 2000 nuclear bombs have been detonated on the earth. You can see them all in Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto’s scary time-lapse map of the 2053 nuclear explosions which have taken place between 1945 and 1998.
Uranium mines like the one in Elliot Lake can never be cleaned up. That waste gives off 10,000 more times radiation as it did undisturbed in the ground.
I apologized to Isabelle for our past.
“ Yes me too,” she replied, ” I am really sorry for the past too but all we can do is look to what is ahead now. Are we standing on the edge of our destruction? What path are we gonna take?”
Reconciliation is about making things right. It is about fixing the wrongs. Our Grandmothers hold the light in this darkness. Their love and leadership can save us all. It it time to listen to them. We all play a part on this stage. There is only one earth, one home, one mother. The future depends on us. Find your way.
The painting at the top of the page is by Leland Bell. It was photographed at the Ojibwe Cultural Centre on Manitoulin Island.