Thunder Bay

First Nations elder pleads for help after mercury poisoning

A 73-year-old from Wabauskang First Nation has written a letter to the media, stating she's running out of time — and options — to address mercury poisoning in her community.

Betty Riffel says mercury from Dryden paper mill poisoned her people and is looking for compensation

A sign near Grassy Narrows First Nation. Wabauskang First Nations elder Betty Riffel says the same mercury poisoning that affects Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations also affects her community. Both of those First Nations received a multi-million dollar settlement, including the establishment of the Mercury Disability Board to compensate individuals, she said, adding the people of Wabauskang have received nothing. (Jody Porter/CBC)

A 73-year-old from Wabauskang First Nation has written a letter to the media, stating she's running out of time — and options — to address mercury poisoning in her community.

Betty Riffel said Wabauskang experienced the same contamination as  Grassy Narrows, but unlike its downstream neighbours, the community has received neither recognition nor compensation.

Mercury contamination from a Dryden paper mill was discovered in the English-Wabigoon river system in 1970 — contamination that had allegedly been there for years.

Riffel said her brother died as a baby when they were living along the river. She said she believes he died, as did many other infants, as a result of being poisoned by mercury.

"Our community would be a lot bigger if those babies had survived," Riffel said.

"They killed our people. That's what it looks like. Almost like genocide."

A mercury disability compensation board, which was established in by the government in 1986, provides support for people at nearby Grassy Narrows and Wabseemong First Nations.

For decades, Riffel has been pushing for similar support, but to no avail.

The province says Wabauskang is not part of the compensation board because it is located on a separate watershed.

No 'political will'

Kathleen Wynne, who was Ontario's Minister of Aboriginal Affairs before she decided to take part in the race for Liberal leader, said changes to the compensation board would require federal help — something that isn't easy to come by.

"This is a very difficult issue around a tragedy involving the poisoning of the environment," she said.

But Wynne vowed, if she becomes Premier, she'll continue to pursue the issue.

Lawyer Kate Kempton, who has worked with Riffel to help pressure the government, said it should be "relatively easy" for Ontario and Canada to come up with a formula for compensation for Wabauskang.

They could base it on the mercury disability compensation board already in place at Grassy Narrows and Wabseemoong, Kempton said,  "but the political will doesn't seem to be there and, to me, that's a crime."

Betty Riffel's letter to media:

November 28, 2012

I am writing this letter in the hope that someone will hear us and tell our story.

I am a member of the Wabauskang First Nation, I am 73 years old, and I am the victim of mercury poisoning. Many others in my community have been poisoned by mercury and suffered its terrible effects.

This mercury poisoning also affects Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations. Both of those First Nations received a multi-million dollar settlement. Part of the settlement included the establishment of the Mercury Disability Board to compensate individuals.

The people of Wabauskang have received nothing.

Just like those at Grassy Narrows and Whitedog, our people have suffered many of the devastating effects of mercury poisoning: bottle fed babies dying in high numbers, mental retardation, neurological problems, numbness, tremors, and violent seizures.

We have never received any compensation or even acknowledgement from Canada or Ontario of what was done to us. We attempted to get both governments to address our problems many times, but we have been ignored. Canada told us it was nothing to do with them. Ontario told us there was no money to help us.

There aren't many of us left, only nine. Those of us who are still alive are sick and suffering from the effects of the poisoning.  We are old, and it seems to us that Ontario and Canada are just waiting for us to die because it will be cheaper than helping us.

The people suffering from mercury poisoning mostly came from the original site of the reserve which was near Quibell, Ontario. In the late 1960s, Indian Affairs came to Quibell, burned the houses to the ground, and then forced everyone to move to Wabauskang Lake. Many people had been sick in the community with symptoms we now know are consistent with mercury poisoning.

In the late 1960s, my brother called me to tell me that Indian Affairs was trying to disband Wabauskang. We resisted and built an 18 km road to the reserve without any funds from Indian Affairs.

From the late 1960s to late 1970s Dryden Chemical Limited dumped more than 40,000 pounds of mercury in to the English-Wabigoon River system. There have been numerous studies and reports documenting this contamination and its devastating effects.

In 2006, Dr. Leanne Simpson, completed a draft report on the contamination at Wabauskang, which has been shared with both Ontario and Canada. Dr. Simpson stated in her report:

Fish in the English-Wabigoon River were severely contaminated by methyl mercury with mean mercury concentrations in 1975 ranging from 0.47-5.98 ppm. Health Canada's guideline for the safe consumption of fish for frequent fish eaters is 0.2 ppm. Studies completed by Wabauskang First Nation in 2002 indicate that there are still elevated levels of mercury in pike and walleye….

Our people, just like those at Grassy Narrows and Whitedog, continued to eat the fish and drink the water. People in our community did not even know about the contamination until the 1980s.

Why were the people of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog helped and compensated and we were not?

Why does the government tell us everything is safe when they should know it is not?

Our people have lost our way of life, our natural resources, our heritage, and we have been poisoned. Why is the government ignoring us?

Yours truly,

Betty Riffel