From 1962-1970, a paper mill upstream of the Grassy Narrows First Nation – an Ojibwa community located 80 km north of Kenora, Ontario – deposited some 10 tonnes of mercury into the river that they had fished in for centuries.
Chief Roger Fobister and other community members held talks and protests in Toronto on July 28 to press the federal and Ontario governments to apologize for allowing the dumping to take place and commit to cleaning out the affected river system.
Hundreds of supporters paraded through the streets of Toronto to deliver their demands to Queens Park. The group carried long yarns of blue fabric, fish cut-outs and banners.
Chief Fobister says he is frustrated with both the provincial and federal governments, saying they “look the other way” when companies pollute remote First Nation communities like his.
“An apology would be quite significant in knowing the government is sorry about what it allowed to take place,” said Fobister.
Fobister would also like to see changes to the way that people are diagnosed with mercury poisoning. He points to a 2010 study by the Mercury Disability Board, an organization that was set up by the Grassy Narrows First Nation following an earlier settlement. The report says that many of the procedures that are being used to diagnose mercury poisoning amongst the Grassy Narrows residents are outdated. The report draws from the work of a team of Japanese researchers who studied the impact of the pollution on the community for over 30 years and concluded that the number of people affected is far higher than those who are currently receiving compensation.
“Many of the health complaints from the affected population have not been properly diagnosed and documented,” says the report. “There should have been extensive examinations and follow-up of these communities from [the 1970s] forward, and assistance with respect to health and nutrition.”
Fobister is also calling on the government to end logging practices in traditional Grassy Narrows territory. He says that companies have moved to clear cutting rather than selective logging techniques, and that this is causing natural occurring mercury to flow down hills into the river system.
“We’re saying that based on our evidence, clear cutting will release more mercury into our waterways and this will poison us. It just compounds the problem,” said Fobister.
Judy Da Silva is a mother of five who lives and grew up on the Grassy Narrows reserve. She receives compensation – around $250 a month. She says that given the fact that all of her nation are impacted by mercury dumping, they should all be compensated.
Mercury poisoning can cause loss of balance, memory and sensation in fingertips – all issues Da Silva has experienced. “But the thing with mercury,” she said, “is it starts eating away at the brain and has other effects, like heart disease, and even diabetes.”
Da Silva, a day-care administrator, draws a connection between mercury poisoning and child development. Out of 44 children in the community’s system, 12 are special needs, a high number she attributes to the lasting effects of the pollution.
Da Silva also laments is the loss of culture that has resulted from the pollution. Fish, she says, is sacred to the Ojibway. And given the high rates of mercury, she only allows her children to eat it on special occasions.
“I tell them the fish is poisoned. I tell them to just eat a little bit of it when they do. We now get to eat fish once or twice a year. It’s too tainted.”
On July 29, Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer announced that he will visit Grassy Narrows on Aug. 6 to assess the situation.