Article Creativity + Identity

Don't drink the water: mercury poisoning in Canada

In the 1960s, a pulp and chemical mill owned by the British multinational Reed Paper Limited, with government permission to work in northern Ontario, intentionally dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River. This river was the livelihood and food source for the fishermen, hunters, trappers and families of Grassy Narrows First Nation, an indigenous community located 2,000 km north-west of Toronto, Canada’s largest city.

The impact was immediate. Animals that ate fish started acting funny, and soon adults did too. Weakened motor control, slurred speech, tunnel vision and miscarriages became a common occurrence. Studies were conducted, politicians were made aware of the dangers and risks, and solutions were thrown about and debated.

The debate is ongoing 42 years later. The river remains contaminated. The community is underemployed since the fishery was its main employer before the spill and there is a high incidence of miscarriage, nerve damage and disability among the population.

Last September, a Japanese team of scientists wrapped up their fifth visit to Grassy, as it is often called, where they were studying Minamata disease among the people and its animals. Minamata disease occurs in humans who ingest fish or shellfish contaminated by methylmercury (MeHg), often as a result of discharged waste water from a chemical plant. The Japanese scientists started to collect data and examine patients in Grassy in 1975.

On July 29, 2014, two days before a peaceful march through downtown Toronto, hundreds of Toronto residents gathered in a university room lecture hall to hear more about Grassy.

One of the key speakers that night, and perhaps the draw for many, was Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, who has for many years been absent from Canadian politics to focus on Aids and primary health care in sub-Saharan Africa, among other regions.

He called his attendance his first indigenous return. “I’m putting my toes in the politics of Ontario and the country again, and I’m really glad it’s in solidarity with aboriginal rights”, he said. (You can hear his entire speech here via

Intergenerational consequences

Lewis recognised the challenges facing Roger Fobister Sr, the new chief of Grassy Narrows, whose people suffer the intergenerational consequences of mercury poisoning – including high rates of miscarriage and high incidence of early onset nerve damage.

Lewis also recognised Steve Fobister, 62, an elder from the First Nation and a former hunter, trapper and activist. Fobister would later say how Lewis was one of the “two good white men” on his side when they last saw each other in 1978. That’s when they were both struggling to get government support to bring the mercury pollution out of the river system.

Fobister recalled how they weren’t received well by the public. Yet on this July night he had just ended a two-day hunger strike in an effort to garner more attention to his people’s story, and earlier in the day he had met with the new provincial minister of aboriginal affairs, who had made commitments to Fobister’s community.

Lewis spoke about how when he was the Ontario NDP minister in the early 1970s the government knew of the mercury poisoning, what he called the largest dumping of waste in the 1960s largely done and inherited by a conglomerate known as the Reid Paper Company (then a British-owned company). The consequences were immediately felt – fishing industries were devastated by contaminated fish, employment skyrocketed to 80% and slowly Grassy Narrows residents, who were accustomed to live off the land out of custom and necessity and ate its fish, berries and moose meat, also started to get contaminated.

As early as 1972, according to Lewis, the medical officer of health for north-western Ontario submitted a report to the ministries of mines and forests, which included the following statement: “It is long past time … to make a clear and equivocal statement on the danger that this poses to our residents … hopefully it would not require a death from mercury poisoning … to precipitate such action - dated May 2, 1972.”

Lewis bellowed that night in July about the cynical hypocrisy and the lack of a formal apology over what was done to the people of Grassy Narrows; there has never been a full-scale inquiry into the government’s actions at the time; there has never been a wish for adequate and realistic compensation; there has never been an effort to clean and restore the river system, or the creation of a mercury treatment centre.

Lewis wasn’t in office in the 1980s when action toward a solution came in the form of an out-of-court settlement. Agreed to by both the First Nations and the provincial government, the Mercury Disability Board was established, intended to support those affected by the mercury poisoning. Critics say even this solution is severely flawed because the compensation is inconsistently distributed (it currently denies more than 70% of applicants).

Compensation denied

Since many in Grassy feel the 1980 solution was inefficient and a temporary one at best, activists like Chrissy Swain, a mother of four and Grassy Narrows resident, said she’s seen her friends get denied by the Mercury Disability Board time and time again.

“I know of a lot of people who apply and keep getting rejected”, says Swain. “Some people have been trying since they were young and their condition gets worse and they still get rejected.”

As part of the settlement created in the 1980s, the Mercury Disability Board was meant to support people affected by mercury poisoning. Margaret Wanlin, chair of the board, says more than $17m in benefits has been paid out since 1985.

Compensation ranges from $250 to $800 per person, based on the severity of symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning. Wanlin admits that the payment structure has not been adjusted to account for inflation. As many as 72% of the Grassy residents who apply, get rejected.

As reported by CBC, Wanlin says that the process of review is a functional assessment.

“It’s looking at people who have symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning, so there’s no way of knowing what the right number is”, Wanlin told CBC.

But the Japanese scientists who have been monitoring and assessing the Grassy residents since 1975 say that the criteria the board are using is too restrictive.

An expert review commissioned by the board in 2010 found that the reason so many people were being rejected was because the diagnostic criteria had not been updated since the 1980s and were more restrictive than those in use in Japan, where scientists are deemed the leaders in the mercury poisoning field.

Restitution beyond compensation

The people of Grassy Narrows want more than just a compensation sticking plaster for illness. Their demands address where the problem started: harmful use of the First Nations’ land entrusted to the government. The Ontario government that authorised and trusted the paper company would work responsibly.

“Dumping mercury in the river, flooding the lands, clear-cutting — the government is not a very good steward over our aboriginal home. They do a bad job”, said Chief Roger Fobister Sr.

Swain and her four children support the FreeGrassy movement, which has five specific demands she believes could lead to environmental justice.

First, the provincial government needs to acknowledge the presence of Minamata disease, which they have not done yet.

Second, there needs to be adequate compensation for those residents suffering from mercury poisoning - FreeGrassy says that the compensation offered to date is minimal and the diagnostic criteria are problematic.

Third, the creation of an environmental health monitoring centre in Grassy Narrows could prevent future or ongoing pollution.

Fourth, the creation of a mercury treatment centre in Kenora would allow residents to drive only two hours to be treated for symptoms related to mercury poisoning. Right now medical care is not very accessible or regular.

The fifth demand is for Grassy Narrows residents to have control over their own territory, which would prevent future pollution and diminishing of natural resources, such as the province’s plans to authorise clear-cut logging in the area as soon as April 2015.

Recent scientific studies suggest that clear-cut logging near Grassy threatens to increase levels of mercury, run-off toxins and pesticides used for tree plantation.

On August 6, about a week after Fobister’s hunger strike and Lewis’s appearance at the rally, the provincial minister of aboriginal affairs visited Grassy Narrows and repeated his commitment to push for a review of the Mercury Disability Board, including compensation levels and diagnostic criteria. He said he would look into a mercury treatment centre in Grassy Narrows. The minister also stated that he is working with provincial ministers of parliament who represent the regions near Grassy to work together with the chief, the council and the community.

Swain says she has seen no public action towards those commitments yet. There has been no review committee announced or any other similar actions.

“For me, all these different politicians always say that they are going to do this and going to do that, but nothing ever happens, so I don’t know”, said Swain, while on her two-hour drive to town to collect some necessities.

“For me, when these people come and make all these promises, I don’t go by that. I keep doing what I’m doing. That’s trying to teach my children and my community.”

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