Since leaving their homes near Kenora, Ontario on May 14, six young people from Grassy Narrows First Nation have walked nearly 2,000 kilometres in a bid to raise awareness about mercury poisoning in their community and in nearby White Dog First Nations. Yesterday, the group arrived in Toronto and joined other activists in a rally to call on the Ontario government to protect their water.
Over an eight-year period in the 1960s, a pulp and paper mill in Dryden dumped over 9,000 kilos of mercury into the Wabigoon River, according to the Canadian government. Once the dumping was discovered, commercial fishing in the area was outlawed, but locals living along the Wabigoon-English River system say they have received mixed messages about whether fish there is safe to eat. Ontario's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne says there is still a consumption advisory on eating the fish, and that "probably the fish shouldn't be eaten".
Health Canada stopped testing residents of Grassy Narrows for mercury years ago, stating that mercury poisoning should no longer be a problem because contamination levels have fallen below the government's safety guidelines. But Dr. Masazumi Harada, a Japanese mercury expert who visited Grassy Narrows for the first time in 1975 and has returned many times to study the effects of the pollution, has found that many residents are experiencing mercury-related health problems.
Dr. Harada has seen symptoms in the Grassy Narrows population of Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Symptoms can include numbness in the hands and feet, weakened muscles, and damage to hearing and speech. In a study released yesterday, Dr. Harada states that about 44 percent of people aged 21 to 41 (the group born after the mill was barred from dumping its waste) have been affected by mercury contamination.
The federal government also weighed in on the issue yesterday, with Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, saying "the health and well-being of First Nations is a top priority for our government", and stating that his government continues "to work with the Mercury Disability Board and the government of Ontario to support the work of the board in addressing the issue of mercury contamination".
Activists gathered in Ontario want the provincial government to acknowledge the extent of the mercury poisoning, to apologize, and to clean the river. They are also looking for a permanent environmental health monitoring centre in Grassy Narrows and compensation for the victims of the poisoning. The Mercury Disability Board was established in 1986 to compensate victims, but the Grassy Narrows First Nation says 74 of its residents who have been diagnosed as impacted by mercury are receiving no support.
And this Wednesday, representatives of Grassy Narrows First Nation will challenge Premier Dalton McGuinty to eat some of their local fish at a traditional fish fry, endorsed by celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy, which will take place outside the Ontario Legislature at Queen's Park, one of a number of events taking place in Toronto over the next few days:
Tuesday, June 5 - Steelworker's Hall, 25 Cecil Street, Toronto, 6:30 pm - Pollution in Our Water, Poison in Our Bodies: Speaking Event With Judy da Silva, Dr. Masazumi Harada, Joanne Webb, and Lee Maracle
Wednesday, June 6 - Queen's Park South Lawn, noon - Traditional Fish Fry
Friday, June 8 - Grange Park (behind the Art Gallery of Ontario), noon - River Run Rally with Grassy Narrows, starting at Grange Park and ending up at Queen's Park
For more on the story, check out yesterday's episode of CBC Radio's 'The Current' for interviews with Minamata disease researcher David Carpenter, Grassy Narrows community organizer Judy da Silva, and David Sone, a forest campaigner with Earthroots.