CBC Digital Archives

Fishing for fun and death

Between 1962 and 1970, natives in two northwest Ontario communities sat down to daily meals of poison. Their staple food — fish — had record-high levels of mercury from a chemical plant up the river. Debate still rages over just how sick the mercury has made the people of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog reserves. There is no doubt, however, that the lingering pollution was a disaster for the natives and the lodge owners who had employed them as fishing guides. Their source of food and jobs destroyed, the bands endured years of alcoholism and despair, government neglect and, finally, healing.

media clip
The Ontario government banned commercial fishing on the polluted waterway in 1970. Sport fishing should also be banned, an Ontario doctor says, or more people will come down with the mercury poisoning symptoms he already sees in local natives. Dr. Peter Newberry is also worried that a severely retarded native boy might be Ontario's first congenital case of Minamata disease.

In this clip from CBC Television's Take 30, investigative reporter Warner Troyer updates a documentary he did the previous fall for the The Fifth Estate. What, Troyer asks, is it going to take for Ontario to close the river system to visiting American anglers? 
• The Ontario government never banned sport fishing on the English-Wabigoon river system. "Fish for fun" signs warned residents and tourists not to eat the fish. At the urging of lodge owners, the government quickly replaced the signs with letters sent to Kenora-area residents. Tourists no longer got any official notice about the mercury contamination. Native leaders said their band members would continue to eat contaminated fish as long as they saw American tourists doing the same.

• Dr. Peter Newberry was a retired Canadian Forces physician with a master's degree in biophysics. He was hired by the National Indian Brotherhood and the Society of Friends to help the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog natives. He started testing them in November 1974. He also travelled to Japan with several natives in the summer of 1975 to learn about Minamata disease.

• It was impossible to prove if in vitro mercury poisoning caused Keith Pahpasay's disabilities as seen in the television clip. Other conditions, including cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome, can produce similar effects. Tests on his mother while she was pregnant revealed she had a blood mercury level of 169 parts per billion - many times higher than the "no-risk" level.

• After reporting on the Grassy Narrows contamination for The Fifth Estate, Warner Troyer wrote a book about the natives' plight. No Safe Place was published in 1977. It said a 1975 federally commissioned study was suppressed because it found 45 Indians had eyesight problems known as "visual field losses" consistent with mercury poisoning. The federal Health Department official who commissioned the study later told reporters the study was flawed.

• Troyer's book also accused Leo Bernier, the natural resources minister, of siding with the vice-president of Reed Paper Ltd. during meetings at the legislature. Environment Minister George Kerr, the book stated, recalled the vice-president telling him: "George, we made $80,000 profit last year - I can't tell my directors we have to spend to $15 million to clean up pollution." Kerr is quoted as saying Bernier agreed with the company official, saying: "That's right, George. He can't do that. You can see that..."

• Kerr told reporters he had relayed the exchange to Troyer's researcher after she "snuggled up" to him at a reception at Osgoode Hall. "No wonder I was expansive," he said shortly after the book's publication, adding he couldn't say if the quotes were accurate or not. The same year No Safe Place hit the stands, another book on the topic, Grassy Narrows by George Hutchison and Dick Wallace, was released.
Medium: Television
Program: Take 30
Broadcast Date: March 23, 1976
Guest(s): Robert Billingsley, Peter Newberry, Marcel Pahpasay
Host: Mary Lou Finlay
Reporter: Warner Troyer
Duration: 5:58

Last updated: May 26, 2014

Page consulted on May 26, 2014

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

Mercury Rising: The Poisoning of Grassy Narro...

Between 1962 and 1970, natives in two northwest Ontario communities sat down to daily meals of...

Grassy Narrows: Still ill

Mercury continues to make natives sick, says the Japanese doctor who made Canadian authorities...

Grassy Narrows manhunt

A gas sniffer suspected of killing one OPP officer and wounding another is caught after a huge...

Grassy Narrows: Doing it for themselves

Former troublemakers at Grassy Narrows have become part of the solution to the reserve's serio...

Grassy Narrows: Compensation and 'shame'

Sixteen years after poison in the river destroyed their way of life, natives get a multi-milli...

Grassy Narrows: The antidote

Rays of hope are seen in community that, for a long time, has been a very dark place.