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Grassy Narrows poisoned in many ways

The Story

Mercury had been valued - and known to be toxic - since the Romans used only slaves and convicts to mine it. Today, despite the hazards, it's a fact of industrial life, we hear in this clip from CBC Radio's Ideas. Diagnosing the effects of inevitable human exposure is tricky because symptoms like tremors and numbness can also be caused by alcoholism, diabetes and nervous disorders. Still, there's no doubt the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog Native people have been traumatized. Grassy Narrows residents, still dealing with disruption caused by a government decision to move their settlement in 1963, now know they have poison in their systems. They've also seen the horrific effects of high mercury doses on people in Minamata, Japan, and been told they risk the same. Whether or not mercury is making them sick, their lives have been turned upside down, says Dr. John Stobo Prichard, a Toronto neurologist who spent time on the reserve.

Medium: Radio
Program: IDEAS
Broadcast Date: Feb. 22, 1983
Guests: Tom Clarkson, Kai Erickson, John Stobo Prichard
Reporter: Anastasia Shkilnyk
Duration: 15:07

Did You know?

• Between the early 1970s — when the reserves were coming to terms with the mercury contamination — and the airing of this program in 1983, social conditions deteriorated gravely. The program's narrator, Anastasia Shkilnyk, chronicled the decline in her 1985 book, A Poison Stronger Than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibway Community. The poison referred to in the title is alcohol.

• Shkilynk's book describes a broken community full of despair, suicide, alcoholism, gas sniffing, child neglect and sexual abuse. She lived on Grassy Narrows for two-and-a-half years starting in November 1976. Shkilynk had been hired to identify development projects for the Grassy Narrows band while taking a break from urban and regional studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

• A Poison Stronger Than Love argues that the 1963 relocation of the Grassy Narrows reserve was a big factor in later problems. The Department of Indian Affairs moved the community about eight kilometres south so it would be connected by road to Kenora. Residents were put in small, side-by-side houses with no gardens. They came into constant contact with the outside world. Frayed social bonds made them ill-equipped to handle the mercury nightmare, Shkilynk said.

• The mercury contamination, bringing health fears and mass unemployment, pushed the vulnerable Grassy Narrows into crisis. The Whitedog reserve experienced similar social problems in the 1970s caused by the contamination and earlier societal upheaval. In the 1950s, two major Ontario Hydro dams had flooded Whitedog lands. Homes and a cemetery were submerged. A settlement at One Man Lake was uprooted.


Mercury Rising: The Poisoning of Grassy Narrows more