Mercury Poisoning in Grassy Narrows Reserve

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Today, we look into an environmental nightmare that began in the '60s and is still raising questions today in a Aboriginal community in northern Ontario. A Japanese researcher, famous for his work on mercury poisoning in his own country has released a new report on what he says he's found in Grassy Narrows.


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Mercury Poisoning in Grassy Narrows Reserve

We started this segment with the sounds of a fish fry on Friday at the First Nations community of Grassy Narrows, northeast of Kenora, Ontario.

Fifty years ago, the reserve and the neighbouring community of Whitedog were exposed to prolonged and severe mercury contamination. Now, residents are welcoming a new report by a Japanese medical researcher into the long-term effects of that exposure. The doctor, Masazumi Harada, is considered a pioneer on Minamata disease - the severe form of mercury poisoning first discovered in Japan more than 50 years ago.

David Carpenter is the former dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Albany and a researcher into the health effects of environmental contaminants and he told us how rare and frightening Minamata can be.

The residents of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog relied on fishing for much of their diet and economy. But in 1962, the Ontario government granted permission to a company called Dryden Chemicals to dump mercury into the Wabigoon-English River system that supported the native fishery. About 10 tonnes of mercury were dumped before the province ordered the company to stop in 1970.

But the damage to the fishery, way of life - and health - of Grassy Narrows was done. In 1986, the communities agreed to a settlement and compensation package with the company and the federal and provincial governments. Last week the CBC's Jody Porter spoke to Shoon Keewatin, an Ojibway fisherman in Grassy Narrows who remembers the impact mercury contamination had on the community.

The Japanese researcher, Masazumi Harada, thinks Minamata disease caused by eating contaminated fish is widespread among the people of Grassy Narrows. He's been studying them for four decades. In his report, which is officially being released today, he finds the effects of mercury poisoning are far-reaching and that mercury contamination in the watershed is persistent. Dr. Harada's colleague - Masanori Hanada - was in Grassy Narrows last week to discuss their findings.

David Sone is the forest campaigner with the environmental group, Earthroots, which is helping to coordinate the release of Dr. Harada's report. David Sone joined us in our Toronto studio. Judy daSilva is a community organizer and mother of five children in Grassy Narrows. And she was also in Toronto.

We did request an interview with Michael Gravelle, Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources. He declined our request. And Premier Dalton McGuinty was not available to join us this morning ... nor was Ontario's Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Kathleen Wynne.

This segment was produced by The Current's Chris Wodskou.


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