9 August 2014
ABORIGINAL JUSTICE: Demanding a response
to mercury poisoning
by Chris Sabas
During River Run week, 28-31 July 2014, members of the
Grassy Narrows First Nation obtained and responded to a 2010 scientific report
commissioned by the Mercury Disability Board, which includes representatives
from both the provincial and federal governments. While not yet released to the public nor even initially shared
with the community, the report confirms that community members have
suffered from mercury-related neurological disorders and notes “[t]he rate of
residents reporting neurological
symptoms was very high for such a small population.”
The mercury crisis affecting
Grassy Narrows began in 1962, after a nearby paper mill poisoned the
Wabigoon-English river system, contaminating local fish and communities. The Dryden Chemicals pulp and paper
mill leaked an estimated 9000 kilograms of mercury into the river system
between 1962 and 1970. By 1970,
Grassy Narrows had to stop commercial and sport fishing due to high levels of
mercury contamination. At the
time, the Ontario government maintained the fish were safe for consumption.
Neither the Ontario
government nor Canada has apologized for a single case of mercury poisoning and
has refused to acknowledge mercury poisoning occurred. Health Canada stopped testing community
members for mercury poisoning in the 1990’s citing minimal risk. The report, however, demonstrates
Grassy Narrows mercury survivors are not receiving necessary medical care and
that the problem is ongoing due to long term impacts of past exposure and the
potential for impact on fetuses and children, even at government-established “low”
Disability Board was created in 1985 after the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong
Independent Nations settled out of court with Ottawa, Queen’s Park and two
paper companies, Reed Ltd. (owner of Dryden Chemicals) and Great Lakes Forest
Products Ltd. The board provides compensation to documented survivors, using a now
outdated point system based upon questionable scientific methodology.
As a result, Grassy
Narrows elder and former Grand Chief of Treaty 3 territory, Steve Fobister Sr.,
63, began a hunger strike at the outset of River Run. Fobister suffers from ALS, brought on by mercury
poisoning. He has difficulty
walking, no sensation in either his lips or fingers and due to significant
trembling, has difficulty speaking.
“I’m dying anyway,
one piece at a time,” Steve said at a press conference, explaining his decision
to deny his frail body of nourishment and rest. He wanted to draw attention to the continuing and flagrantly
ignored issue of mercury poisoning in his community. And he did.
Aboriginal Affairs minister David Zimmer has called for a review of the Mercury Disability Board and promised
to visit Fobister and the Grassy Narrows community on 6 August.
Fobister and other
survivors will continue to fight.
Their demands are simple: an apology and compensation for all mercury
survivors by assuring adequate health services; cleaning up the river; and prohibiting
clear cut logging because scientific studies demonstrate clear cut logging in
boreal watersheds raises mercury levels.