Grand River is full of contaminants, says award-winning Indigenous McMaster prof

November 3, 2021
Grand River is full of contaminants, says award-winning Indigenous McMaster prof

A McMaster University professor has been recognized with an international award for research into water quality at Six Nations of the Grand River.

Dawn Martin-Hill said she was shocked when the University of Oklahoma awarded her the 2022 International Water Prize.

“It’s one of my first awards,” said the cultural anthropologist and lead researcher with the Ohneganos water research project during CBC Radio’s The Morning Edition in Kitchener-Waterloo.

Martin-Hill’s award means she’ll be honoured at the next awards ceremony, in addition to getting a waterdrop sculpture and $25,000, according to a University of Oklahoma news release.

The research saw two Indigenous communities — Six Nations and Lubicon Cree Nation of Little Buffalo in Alberta — work with researchers to determine the source of contaminants in the water and develop an app that gives real-time updates on the local water quality.

The team also studied community health impacts of the water.

Grand River contaminated with metals

“I don’t think any of us were really prepared for the scope and magnitude of the problem, so we had to continuously write more grants to address emerging issues. More than anything, it was shocking,” said Martin-Hill, who is Mohawk and Wolf Clan.

“I really assumed the worst-case scenario was going to be in Alberta and to find out the kinds of contamination that have gone into the Grand River for a century, the problems here are much worse.”

Martin-Hill said literature stated wells were contaminated with phosphorus, E. coli and farming run-off, but the researchers found high levels of mercury, arsenic, chromium and aluminum.

This 2017 photo shows the interdisciplinary team of researchers out of McMaster University before they started working with Six Nations of the Grand River and the Lubicon Cree Nation of Little Buffalo in a three-year water quality project. (JD Howell, McMaster University)

“None of those things were ever reported in prior studies,” she said.

She said the Six Nations water treatment plant pipeline reaches just 10 per cent of the community, yet the territory is surrounded by major cities Toronto, Hamilton and Brantford that don’t have the same water quality issues.

But she acknowledged there’s no easy fix because of the complexity of the issues.

LISTEN | Dawn Martin-Hill talks about award win and water research

The Morning Edition – K-W7:05Water researcher Dawn Martin-Hill wins international prize for work in Six Nations of the Grand River

Cultural anthropologist Dawn Martin-Hill has been named the 2022 University of Oklahoma International Water Prize recipient for her commitment to improving water security for the people of the Six Nations of the Grand River. She tells The Morning Edition host Craig Norris about her work and what she hopes people take away from her findings. 7:05

Martin-Hill said Agent Orange produced upstream during the Vietnam War has led to contamination. In the present day, she said, companies are taking groundwater from the territory and drying up local wells. She also said various levels of government have neglected investing into infrastructure for a water treatment plant and waste treatment plant in Six Nations.

But her research is ongoing.

“We just really went into this naively and soon realized the scope and magnitude of the problem … there are still economic, cultural, spiritual, social impacts that are related.”

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