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Mercury poisoning: 'The water's no good'

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.

For centuries, the English-Wabigoon river system has nourished Ojibwa families with clear water and plentiful fish. But they recently learned that the life-giving waters are also dispensing potential death in the form of toxic mercury. It's an environmental and human disaster. The Ontario government has told the natives to stop eating fish - their main source of protein - and closed down their commercial fishery, we learn in this report from CBC Television's Weekend.

Steady work as fishing guides has disappeared. "The people are hurt right now," says Roy MacDonald, chief of the Islington band at Whitedog reserve. Almost total unemployment has also struck nearby Grassy Narrows reserve. There is confusion, too. Neither the upstream chemical company that polluted the river nor the Ontario government has offered much information or any compensation. And despite the warning, many natives keep eating the poisoned fish. 
. Grassy Narrows reserve is about 80 kilometres northeast of Kenora, Ont. The band is sometimes referred to by the Ojibwa name Asubpeeschoseewagong. Roughly 70 kilometres to the west, near the Manitoba border, is Whitedog reserve. It is home to Wabaseemoong Independent Nations which, in 1970, was called the Islington band. About 850 natives lived on the two reserves when the mercury problem was discovered.

. Between 1962 and 1970, Dryden Chemicals Ltd. pumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River. The pollution spread east into the English River, then to the Winnipeg River and eventually to Lake Winnipeg. The plant, in Dryden, Ont., upstream from Grassy Narrows, used mercury to make chlorine for bleaching paper. Reed Paper Ltd., the company's British owner, also owned Dryden Pulp and Paper Co. On provincial orders, Dryden Chemicals heavily curtailed mercury emissions in 1970 and halted them in 1975.

. Ontario scaled back its initial warnings about the mercury hazard. Signs warning anglers to fish only "for fun" - because eating the fish was dangerous - were taken down after lodge owners said they were scaring away tourists. A 1971 provincial report even suggested the mercury might be naturally occurring. That year, Leo Bernier, Ontario's northern affairs minister, told lodge owners the mercury might be a natural indicator of valuable ore deposits and be a blessing for the natives.

. Mercury, sometimes called quicksilver, is naturally produced by volcanoes, forest fires, sediment erosion and evaporation from bodies of water. It ranks about 67th in abundance among elements that naturally compose the earth's crust and is slightly more common than gold. Man-made sources include coal burning, waste incineration and chlorine production. It is also used in products including dental fillings, fluorescent lights, dry-cell batteries and thermometers. Before the 1960s, mercury was thought to be relatively stable and inactive in the environment.

. Ontario was alerted to its mercury problem in the late 1960s by a Norwegian undergraduate at the University of Western Ontario. Norvald Fimreite exposed serious contamination of southern Ontario lakes by a Dow Chemical Co. plant. In 1970, a Winnipeg lab tested burbot fish from Clay Lake, on the Wabigoon system between Dryden and the two reserves. The mercury was 33 times the safe eating level. Downstream fish displayed lower, but still potentially dangerous, contamination.
Medium: Television
Program: Weekend
Broadcast Date: Nov. 1, 1970
Guest(s): Janet Hall, Jackson Hall, Peter Hare, Andy Keewatin, George Kerr, Roy MacDonald, John Reid
Host: Kay Sigurjonsson
Reporter: Bob Rodgers
Duration: 8:36

Last updated: March 9, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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