Dance production takes on difficult subject of the mercury poisoning of a First Nation

By Sam Laskaris
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Windspeaker.com

One of its own community members is raising awareness about the long lasting and devastating effects of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Waawaate Fobister, who is an actor, dancer and playwright, is gearing up to present the dance piece titled Omaagomaan in a pair of major Canadian cities.

The 60-minute production uses movement, sound and storytelling to tell of the tragedy of the northern Ontario Nation, which continues to deal with the fallout of mercury poisoning.

The fiasco began several decades ago when a chemical plant, located southeast of Grassy Narrows, dumped several tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970.

The majority of the people in the First Nation ended up with mercury poisoning, partly from eating contaminated fish from the river. Fish was a main food source for the people of Grassy Narrows.

The federal government reached an agreement in 2020 to build a mercury poisoning care home in the community.

Fobister first performed Omaagomaan in Winnipeg in 2019. It features a two-spirit being who provides audiences the details of what happens when something ugly collides with something beautiful.

Fobister also performed the piece in the Ontario city of Peterborough and in Munich, Germany.

Fobister’s next shows will be Feb. 8 to Feb. 10 at MAI, a Montreal arts and cultural centre. They will also perform four shows at Toronto’s Aki Studio from Feb. 15 to Feb. 18.

“It’s so ingrained in me and my family and my daily life,” they said of the mercury poisoning, which has had catastrophic results in their community. “I knew I was going to talk about it since I was a teenager.”

Fobister has seen first-hand the effects of the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. Effects include cognitive delays as well as various neurological problems.

“It has also ripple effects like poverty,” Fobister said. “And it’s kind of like our Anishinaabe livelihood is being taken away from us.”

Fobister has always been keen to make sure their production is properly received.

“It’s a very sensitive subject for me and my community and my family,” they said. “I want to do it right.”

Fobister also performed Omaagomaan at an Elders conference in Winnipeg in December of 2022.

“They were moved,” Fobister said of the audience members. “Some of them were in tears because somebody from Grassy Narrows was doing something about it.”

Fobister continues to tinker with Omaagomaan.

“It’s always evolving,” Fobister said, adding they will be in Montreal for a tech residency from Jan. 27 to Jan. 29, where work will be done to include lighting aspects in the show.

“I’ve never had that before,” they said. “I’m excited to add that element.”

Fobister grew up in Grassy Narrows First Nation and lived there until they were 18. Then they moved to Toronto to attend Humber College’s theatre arts program.

Fobister wrote the play Agokwe shortly after graduating from the college. The play is about two gay teenage boys from neighbouring First Nations.

Agokwe captured six Dora Awards, an annual program that celebrates theatre, dance and opera excellence on Toronto stages.

Fobister has also had various residencies as a playwright and choreographer at locations including the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts, Playwrights Theatre Centre in Vancouver, Workshop Montreal and Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Fobister is currently living in Winnipeg. They are also serving as the 2SLGTBQIA+ council co-ordinator for the Grand Council Treaty #3, whose headquarters is in Kenora, Ont.

The position is a hybrid one as Fobister at times works from home. But they also visit the 28 First Nations in northern Ontario and Manitoba that are party of Treaty #3.

Information, including tickets for Omaagomaan’s Montreal performances, are available at https://m-a-i.qc.ca/en/event/omaagomaan/

And details and tickets for the Toronto shows can be found at https://www.nativeearth.ca/shows/omaagomaan24/

​Windspeaker.com