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40 years later people at Grassy Narrows are still suffering mercury poisoning

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  • “The mills take from our forest, and then give us back disease and sickness and death. Our people have suffered for 40 years from mercury poisoning, and now this sickness is being passed on to our children in the womb. We must stop the mills from destroying our forests, our water, and our culture for the survival of all.” Judy Da Silva, a grassroots mother and blockader from Grassy Narrows.

On April 6, 1970 the Ontario government banned fishing in the English-Wabagoon river system. Within the year the relatively prosperous reserves of Grassy Narrows and White Dog went from 90% employment to 10% at the same time as suffering the terrible health impacts of mercury poisoning. Their battle for compensation became a symbol of the struggle of Indigenous people to have the right to control their traditional lands. It was one of first times that Aboriginal people sounded the alarm of industrial destruction of the environment. Mercury Rising, a CBC documentary at the time raised the health issues but it wasn’t until famed Japanese doctor, Mazuma Harada visited the reserves in 1975 that the full extent of the catastrophic health impacts were known

On April 6, people from Grassy Narrows will come to Toronto to release a new report from Dr. Harada that says that people are still dying from mercury poisoning today and to demand that the government renegotiate a settlement based on today’s knowledge of the impact of mercury poisoning. That evening at 6:30 in Toronto will be a public meeting to discuss the issues and the next day on Wednesday April 7 there will be a River Run with Grassy Narrows members, and their supporters, deploying 1,000 meters of blue fabric to create a wild river that will flow up University Ave. to Queen’s park to deliver their demands, accompanied by traditional and samba drum groups, and by activists wearing animal costumes and large colourful fish puppets.

A backgrounder sent from Grassy Narrows to the media outlines the history of the issue.

Between 1962 and 1970 the Dryden mill dumped 20,000 pounds of mercury into the Wabigoon River, with the Province’s permission. According to a report prepared for the UN, less than 1/50th of a teaspoon of mercury per 8 hectare lake surface is enough to make fish unfit for human consumption. The people of Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemoong, and Wabauskang First Nations were downstream and hurt by the health, social, and economic impacts of this poison. Overnight unemployment in Grassy Narrows skyrocketed from 10% to 90%, and a sacred food staple was lost.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and a persistent pollutant whose health impacts include tunnel vision, loss of coordination, numbness in the extremities, tremors, loss of balance, and speech impediments. Dr. Harada’s report states that “[t]he possibility of congenital Minamata Disease occurrence is very high in these two communities.” Many Grassy Narrows mothers who cannot afford to buy food still eat fish during pregnancy and report delayed development, cerebral palsy, seizures, and other illnesses in their children.

A compensation deal in 1985, reached after 7 years of negotiations, amounted to merely $8,000 per resident in Grassy Narrows and White Dog. Under the deal residents whose mercury poisoning is acknowledged by the Mercury Disability Board receive $250 to $800 a month. However, the Mercury Disability Board acknowledged only 38% of the people Dr. Harada diagnosed with Minamata Disease, Minamata Disease with complications, and possible Minamata Disease. Residents of Wabauskang (formerly Quibell), have never been compensated at all, despite reporting many miscarriages, stillbirths, and early childhood deaths from mercury poisoning.

Health Canada has stopped testing for mercury in Grassy Narrows residents claiming that it is no longer a problem because mercury levels have fallen below the Health Canada safety guideline. Dr.Harada’s study results indicate that even being exposed under the safety guideline, if prolonged, it could cause Minamata Disease (chronic type).

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