The world's leading experts in mercury poisoning are urging Canada to recognize, and treat, the wide-ranging human health impacts of contamination on two First Nations in northern Ontario.
The team of medical experts from Japan wrap up their week-long visit to Grassy Narrows and Wabseemoong First Nations on Sept. 2.
"We had this kind of discussion 30 years ago," said Masanori Hanada, director of the Centre for Minamata Studies in Japan. "It's like deja vu."
It was Hanada's mentor, Dr. Masazumi Harada, who first exposed the extent of mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows in 1975. Between 1962 and 1970 mercury was dumped by a chemical plant at a Dryden paper mill into the river system where First Nations people caught fish, their staple food.
27 per cent of applicants receive pensions
Hanada addressed residents and members of the Mercury Disability Board at a meeting at Grassy Narrows' trappers hall last week.
The board was established in 1986 and has distributed $17 million dollars in disability pensions, according to chair Margaret Wanlin. The average payment is $400 per month.
Wanlin said 27 per cent of the people who apply are approved for a pension.
"It's a functional assessment," Wanlin said of the approval process. "It's looking at people who have symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning, so there's no way of knowing what the right number is."
But Hanada says functional assessments aren't a good measure of who is suffering.
'They are victims'
"I repeat, repeat 100 times with government this kind of discussion," Hanada said. "They lived here, they eat the fish because they are poor. This fish was contaminated and they have neurological symptoms, I think it is enough to admit they are victims."
As several people with walkers and canes slowly navigate the dirt roads of Grassy Narrows on their way to the meeting, leaders seek mercury compensation for everyone who lives here.
"Nine thousand kilograms of methyl mercury was dumped in our river system and I feel like the way the mercury disability board is operating really dishonours my people," Judy DaSilva said in the meeting.
"I feel like all our people should have been compensated immediately, instead of us going for testing all the time."
Like many of her neighbours, DaSilva uses a cane to walk and has lost sensation in part of her face.
Former chief Steve Fobister exhibits some of the most extreme symptoms of mercury poisoning. He said his body is breaking down to the point where he has trouble walking, talking, eating and swallowing, and he's in constant pain.
"You can't even button your shirts, put on your shoes," Fobsiter said. "You become really hopeless."
'We must think of the future'
It was Fobister's two-day hunger strike in July that garnered a promise from the provincial government to review the disability board. But Fobister said he wants more than just disability payments.
He's thinking of his five grandchildren who he said exhibit symptoms of mercury poisoning, including seizures and developmental delays.
Fobister would like to see "some kind of facility that would meet the needs of the people who need more than just home care, but hospital care, in the community."
Right now, people from Grassy Narrows must make a three-hour drive to Winnipeg for any kind of specialized treatment.
Masanori Hanada also hopes Canadian officials will stop from looking for proof that people here are sick and start finding ways to care for them.
"They have the disease," he said. "We must think about the future, how to live with this disease. If not, it is so sad."