Grassy Narrows looking for 'mercury justice compensation for the ongoing crisis' with online rally
The First Nation is hosting a virtual rally Saturday demanding Ontario provide compensation for all residents
A virtual rally is being held by Grassy Narrows First Nation Saturday to demand full compensation for everyone in the community to address the ongoing human and cultural costs of mercury poisoning.
The rally, which already has more than 1500 people registered to attend, will have a number of familiar faces speaking about these ongoing impacts, including Chief Randy Fobister, Grassy Narrows mother and environmental health coordinator Judy Da Silva, as well as Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Ojibwe journalist Tanya Talaga.
"The reason for this whole thing is to go to the next phase of the injustice to Grassy Narrows because of the mercury poisoning, and that's for full compensation for everyone," said Da Silva.
Da Silva says when an environmental disaster happens that affects a non-Indigenous community, the government usually reacts quickly to compensate people.
"And that means money. That's what we're seeking, is compensation for the people that are suffering with mercury poisoning. In Grassy, we've never had that," she added.
Health impacts of mercury poisoning are ongoing
During the 1960s and early '70s, the chemical plant at the Reed Paper mill in Dryden, Ont., which is upstream of Grassy Narrows, dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River. The fish in the river were full of poison, and the people from Grassy Narrows, who relied on the fish as a staple in their diet, were full of it, too.
Once ingested, mercury never goes away. It "bioaccumulates," meaning it passes from one generation to the next, from mother to child, through the placenta. There are a range of physical and mental health impacts related to mercury poisoning, including tremors, headaches, neuromuscular effects, memory loss, and others.
A 2018 report by environmental health expert Donna Mergler found that residents of Grassy Narrows diagnosed with mercury poisoning are up to six times more likely to suffer from a wide range of debilitating health problems, and nearly six times more likely to have a neuropsychological disorder.
The Mercury Disability Board was established in 1986 as part of a court settlement with Ontario and Canada and the two paper companies involved in the contamination to provide financial compensation for members of Wabaseemoong Independent Nations and Grassy Narrows First Nation whose health may have been affected by the mercury poisoning.
But Da Silva says the mercury disability board doesn't cover everybody, and doesn't account for the untold changes to the way of life for people living in Grassy Narrows.
"It's like just a small batch of people that get mercury disability. So it's almost like there's a denial we were even poisoned."
Compensation is justice: Grassy Narrows chief
In an interview with CBC, Chief Randy Fobister recalls stories from a time before the dumping of mercury happened.
"There was a time when you could paddle down the creek, the river and just dip your hand, when you're thirsty, and just drink the water. That's how clean it was."
"I know money's not going to fix anything," he said. "But for now, it should be a blanket compensation. That's what needs to happen. It's justice."
The provincial and federal governments have made some recent commitments to deal with the mercury poisoning. In 2017, Ontario announced up to $85 million to clean up the mercury contamination. In April 2020, Grassy Narrows and the federal government reached a $19.5 million agreement to build a mercury care home to provide access to specialized health care services.
But Da Silva says most of that money is going to provide the basic necessities and does not compensate Grassy Narrows residents for the poisoning or ongoing impacts.
"The money's not going into our impacts. It goes into an industry that's trying to clean the river. And then with the mercury home, it's going to go toward building the building and having staff to keep the place running. So the compensation is what?"
With files from Jody Porter, and from Tashauna Reid and Alice Hopton