The Grand River is sick.
So concluded a group led by Six Nations that spent the week paddling the river to assess the effects of development on the reserve’s drinking water.
“We have a water crisis on our reserve, and it’s been this way for a very long time now,” said Donna Silversmith of Six Nations, who co-organized the 90-kilometre canoe trip.
“We had to go up the Grand River to see why our water down here was inadequate for us to use.”
The group drove to the source of the Grand River, north of Fergus, and then paddled from Elora to north of Kitchener, where Silversmith said the water was clean and clear.
As they continued south through the most heavily built-up and densely populated section of the river, paddlers noticed the effects of pollution, soil erosion and agricultural run-off.
“You could tell by the smell, the colour. And as Haudenosaunee people, we could kind of feel that the water was sick,” Silversmith said on Saturday from the riverbank near the Caledonia dam.
“Even to be here, just to look at the water, it looks as though it has no life in it.”
Communities that have built along the river enjoy clean drinking water that still supports fish and other wildlife, but Silversmith said the consequences of that development flow downstream.
“We don’t have the same opportunities here as people do up the river. They can swim, they can fish, and down here we can’t do anything,” she said.
The paddle was sponsored by Protect the Tract, an advocacy group that supports the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s moratorium on development within the Haldimand Tract unless builders and governments consult with Six Nations hereditary chiefs and clan mothers.
The tract runs 10 kilometres along the full length of the Grand River and encompasses more than three dozen municipalities within its 950,000 acres.
The paddlers scooped water into glass jars at each stop to provide a visual representation of their journey and assess ecosystem health along the river.
“There’s a correlation between the amount of development along the tract and the water quality getting worse. You can see that firsthand,” said Serena Mendizabal, a student from Western University who joined the trip.
She described witnessing how pollution, algal blooms due to nutrient run-off from farms, and luxury homes built at the water’s edge have destroyed wildlife habitat.
“The difference from the Kitchener, Cambridge, Waterloo area is the water is so dark,” added fellow student Curtis Abernethy.
“Up in Elora, though, it was crystal clear. The water didn’t stink as much. As soon as you started getting into the more developed areas, you see a lot more sewage drains running off.”
Paddling through Brantford, Abernethy said he noticed three uncovered pipes dumping sewage into the river.
“All the gas and diesel pumps, cigarette butts, what people throw into the street — people don’t think that gets back into the river, but it does,” he said.
“For me, growing up in Brantford, we know the water is gross,” Mendizabal added. “We know not to swim in it, we know not to eat from it.”
Visiting the Grand’s pristine northern source gave Mendizabal hope the “awful” water quality in the portion of the river she knows best can be improved.
“The river doesn’t have to be this way,” she said. “It can be clean, it can be changed, if stewarded properly and done by the right people, which is the Haudenosaunee.”
Saturday’s final leg of the paddle was also the most serene. Winding 15 kilometres from Chiefswood Park on Six Nations to Caledonia, the riverbank is lush and green, with Carolinian forest offering a biodiverse home for eagles, snapping turtles, and a striking blue heron who stood stock-still on a rock, capturing the group’s attention as the flotilla of five canoes and three kayaks drifted silently by.
The Grand deepens as it nears its terminus at Port Maitland, in contrast to what one paddler described as the “startling” sight of the river reduced to a stream of only a few inches deep near Dundalk. At certain points, paddlers had to carry their canoes over shallow water, a consequence of the recent drought and a mild winter with little snowfall.
The paddlers were a mix of Six Nations members and non-Indigenous allies, some of whom are spending a few weeks at the 1492 Land Back Lane camp in Caledonia. Mendizabal, whose mother is Cayuga from Six Nations, said the trip reaffirmed her commitment to Indigenous land defence.
“What really struck me is how important it is to be out on the land, because that’s our true teacher,” she said.
“Our community is fighting for our land, and the land needs to be fought for. That’s what we really learned this week.”
Silversmith hopes that fight now has some new allies.
“We talked to a lot of people on the ground and on the water. Everybody was really helpful with sharing information,” she said.
“That was also one of our goals — to establish good relationships with people who love the river as much as we do.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator