Steve Fobister’s body had largely given out by the time he travelled to Queen’s Park in July, 2014, to stage a hunger strike on behalf of the people of his Grassy Narrows First Nation who were dying from mercury poisoning.
Mr. Fobister, a former five-time chief of the reserve that lies about 60 kilometres northeast of Kenora, Ont., needed help getting out of his wheelchair to talk about the legacy of the toxic metal that was in the river flowing through his community.
His family had urged him not to make the trip to Toronto. He was too weak, they said. His hands and his feet were aching. His jaw muscles had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer chew. But he could not be dissuaded. “I’m dying anyway,” he explained, “one piece at a time.”
Mr. Fobister was a revered First Nations leader, an environmentalist and a storyteller. He was also, at various points in his life, a probation officer, a hunting guide and the Grand Chief of Treaty 3. He died on Oct. 11 at the age of 66 after suffering for decades with debilitating neurological symptoms.
He leaves his wife, Katherine Land, his children Steven, Emily and Sherry, and many step-children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
His family, who on Friday demanded an inquest, had earlier called on politicians to say he had been poisoned by mercury. No such admission was forthcoming. But there were kind words.
“Steve Fobister dedicated his life to being a strong and passionate voice for the Grassy Narrows community and the challenges that they have faced for too long,” Dr. Jane Philpott, the Indigenous Services Minister, said. “It is clear that community members have suffered for generations – suffering that continues to this day.”
Christine Elliott, the Ontario Health Minister, said: “Steve Fobister leaves behind a legacy of powerful advocacy and courage. He was a testament not only to his community, Treaty 3 and the Anishinaabe people of Northern Ontario, but he set a standard of leadership for others to follow.”
Mr. Fobister’s personal sacrifice did achieve results. The Ontario government agreed last year to clean the mercury that has been in the English and Wabigoon Rivers since nine tonnes of the toxin was dumped from a Dryden paper mill in the 1960s. It also said recently it would increase monthly payments to those living with symptoms related to the poisoning.
And Ottawa says it will complete the construction of a mercury-treatment centre in Grassy Narrows in the fall of 2019.
But Mr. Fobister’s family and friends say the help was too late in coming, and more needs to be done – as evidenced by the fact that his last days were spent in the Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora. Looking around a ward of the same institution last year Mr. Fobister said: “All I see here is elders. They don’t want to die here. They want to die in their community. That is the way it always was. When our people were sick, we looked after their comfort.”
Mr. Fobister was born in Quibell in Northern Ontario, on Feb. 22, 1952, to Margaret Isbister-Land and Charlie Fobister. The family was living in the small railway-stop community because that was where work could be found.
But Mr. Fobister’s real home was always in the wilderness that surrounds Grassy Narrows.
His cousin Christine Pahpasay says he was a frail child who was prone to sickness. Anxious about his health, his mother took him to an elder who gave him the Anishinabek name Pa pii waa nii mo petung, which means “whirlwind in the snow.” It seemed to give him strength.
From an early age, Mr. Fobister preferred the trap line to being in the community. His friend David Sone says he would recall the joy of walking through the dense canopy of spruce over a portage, of lowering a canoe into clear water and of fish that were so abundant he could snare them by hand.
Even as a young teenager, Ms. Pahpasay says, he would stay out in the bush by himself. “He didn’t care for the store-bought meat,” she says. “He liked beaver, muskrat, moose, deer, fish – especially fish.”
When he was 13, he started work at the Delaney Lake Lodge, a nearby hunting and fishing retreat.
Carl Nordgren, an American author and professor who also worked as a guide at Delaney and has written books about Grassy Narrows, recalls landing at the dock as a teenager in the late 1960s and being greeted by a young Ojibway boy who he would eventually describe as one of the only “great men” he has ever known.
Mr. Fobister did not do a lot of guiding, Prof. Nordgren says. Instead, he stayed back to learn the skills it would take for the Ojibway to operate a camp of their own.
But he was a prankster, with shining eyes, who knew the stories of his people, Prof. Nordgren says.
“He took me out and showed me the river,” he says. He showed me the pictographs that were laid on the flat rock when the Ojibway had first come to the area. What he taught me was not how to guide, but he taught me how to entertain the guests, because he told me the stories that the guests wanted to hear about this place and these people.”
Both Mr. Fobister and Prof. Nordgren moved on to work during the summers at Barney Lamm’s Ball Lake Lodge.
One day, in the off-season, Prof. Nordgren received a letter from Mr. Lamm saying the camp was closed because mercury had been found in the water and he should get himself checked for poisoning.
It was the death in 1972 of Thomas Strong, a trapper and tourist guide who was Mr. Fobister’s wife’s uncle, that had confirmed the magnitude of the problem the Anishinaabe had long suspected.
And it would be more than 30 years before governments acknowledged the full extent of the tragedy brought by the mercury.
More than 300 people, including members of Mr. Fobister’s family, became sick. Even those who did not exhibit symptoms of poisoning could no longer eat fish from their river or drink its waters.
Fighting for recognition of the harms that had been done, and for remediation and compensation, became Mr. Fobister’s life’s work. He also campaigned against clear cutting, for Indigenous sovereignty and for governments to account for systemic racism against First Nations people in their own homelands.
“We may not succeed in our first year of struggle,” Mr. Fobister said in 2017. “But I think, in time, we begin to learn who we were as a people ... the resilience that we had in surviving with the environment.”
Ms. Pahpasay remembers Mr. Fobister turning up to the celebration that followed a successful moose hunt. He was already severely disabled by the mercury. But he sat by the fire with a big pot and, as he told stories – happy stories, funny stories and serious stories – he was making bannock.
“And it looked like he wasn’t paying any attention” as he casually flipped the bread around the cast iron pot," she says. “It just looked like there was no effort at all” because he was so steeped in the old ways of his people.
“One day, the full story of Grassy Narrows will be told,” Charlie Angus, the New Democrat MP who represents the riding in which the reserve is located,” told the House of Commons after Mr. Fobister’s death. “Let it not be about the pusillanimous acts of institutions like Parliament, but about the people who were determined to rebuild and live better. In that story, Steve Fobister will live large.”