Thunder Bay

Mercury survivors neglected by government, Grassy Narrows First Nation claims

A northwestern Ontario First Nation has released a five-year-old report confirming the community suffers ongoing effects from mercury poisoning, but it says the government has never acted on the findings.
Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy and Grassy Narrows Chief Roger Fobister speak at Toronto new conference held to shed light on a little-known 2009 report that suggests mercury poisoning continues to affect people in Grassy Narrows and Wabeseemoong First Nations and that they are not receiving adequate medical care. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

A northwestern Ontario First Nation has released a five-year-old report confirming the community suffers ongoing effects from mercury poisoning, but it says the government has never acted on the findings. 

At a news conference in Toronto on Monday, members of Grassy Narrows First Nation presented the 2009 report that they say should have been made public long ago.

The report was commissioned by the Mercury Disability Board, an organization established in 1986 through an out-of-court settlement to assess and manage claims related to mercury contamination in the Wabigoon/English River system.

A Dryden-based paper company dumped mercury into the river between 1962 and 1970, contaminating the main source of fish for Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabesemoong Independent Nations.
For decades, people at Grassy Narrows have been seeking more recognition and better treatment of the symptoms they suffer after their fishery was contaminated in the 1960s by mercury from a nearby pulp mill. (CBC)

The report concludes, "There is no doubt that there was high mercury exposure in these two communities in the late sixties and early seventies ... There is no doubt that at these levels of exposure, many persons were suffering from mercury-related neurologic disorders.

"There should have been extensive examinations and followup of these communities from that time forward, and assistance with respect to health and nutrition."

The report's authors, Canadian mercury researchers Laurie Chan and Donna Mergler, also wrote that the Mercury Disability Board's approach "to assess whether or not an applicant has signs or symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning was designed based on the state of science and knowledge of the impact of mercury on human health in the 1980s."

Neurological symptoms 'very high'

Chan and Mergler reviewed studies by Dr. Masazumi Harada, a Japanese researcher who had visited Grassy Narrows in 1975, and again in 2002, to test residents for mercury contamination and conduct neurological exams. 

They noted that dozens of residents Harada had diagnosed with mercury poisoning "were not acknowledged" by the Mercury Disability Board.
Fish is a staple diet for the people of Grassy Narrows, whose own waters and fish have been contaminated with mercury. (CBC)

David Sone, a campaigner for the environmental group Earthroots who is working with Grassy Narrows, told CBC News those findings prove that many mercury poisoning survivors continue to be denied compensation. 

"The Mercury Disability Board is simply using old science and, because of that, they're excluding the majority of people who deserve compensation," he said. "Since that time we've learnt ... that people can be impacted at much lower levels of mercury than we previously thought." 

The report said mercury poisoning continues to affect people in Grassy Narrows and Wabeseemoong First Nations and that residents were not receiving adequate medical care.

"We ... want to highlight the urgent need to improve the general health of the two communities as the health status of the participants was clearly poor," the authors wrote. "The rate of residents reporting neurological symptoms was very high for such a small population."

Ministry says Grassy Narrows had access to report

Sone said the conclusions would have been presented to the Mercury Disability Board, which includes representatives from Aboriginal Affairs at both the federal and provincial government levels, but officials failed to act.

But a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs said the report was dealt with appropriately.

"The literature review in question was presented in 2010 to the Mercury Disability Board [MDB] which is an organization independent of the Ontario government," wrote Scott Cavan in an email to CBC News. "The literature review was shared with the entire Mercury Disability Board which includes First Nation representation from the Grassy Narrows community.
We understand that the Mercury Disability Board held an open house in Grassy Narrows First Nation where people could ask questions of the board and discuss the report."

Erica Meekes, spokesperson for the federal minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada [AANDC} also provided an email response: "The health and well-being of First Nations is a priority of the Government of Canada. AANDC continues to work with the Mercury Disability Board and the Province of Ontario to support their work in addressing the issue of mercury contamination. In total, our Government has contributed more than $9 million in compensation to Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations affected by mercury contamination, for economic and social development initiatives."

Chief Roger Fobister said he is looking for an apology and acknowledgement of the problem, compensation to all those affected and a complete river system cleanup.

The Grassy Narrows group also wants a federal representative to attend the mercury board meetings. It said that, as of yet, it has been unable to have both provincial and federal government representatives at a meeting at the same time.

Grassy Narrows resident starts hunger strike 

Grassy Narrows resident Steve Fobister says he's on a hunger strike to draw attention to the issue of mercury contamination in his community. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

A member of Grassy Narrows First Nation affected by mercury poisoning says he's started a hunger strike.

Steve Fobister announced at the Toronto press conference Monday he hopes his protest will help to continue to draw attention to the issue of mercury contamination.

Fobister said he suffers severe disabilities, which he attributes to mercury exposure. 

Ontario government response:

"We are committed to the Grassy Narrows First Nation-Ontario Working Group which will continue to meet and develop strategies for moving forward and collaborating to address priority issues.
This working group was developed with Grassy Narrows First Nation to work together to address concerns related to mercury, environmental and health and social issues. The group consists of members from the First Nation along with several provincial ministries: Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, Environment, Northern Development and Mines, Training Colleges and Universities and the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. Through the working group, the Ministry of the Environment is working with the community to enhance their participation in monitoring activities, like the Drinking Water Surveillance Program and the Sport Fish Contaminant Monitoring Program. The government is also working with the community to plan an assessment of the community's health and implement a program to monitor the levels of mercury in the local fish.
The working group continues to work with the Chief and council to assess and prioritize the community’s needs.  They are researching economic development opportunities for the community, including commercial fishing and guiding with further discussions to take place later this summer. The working group is also examining educational opportunities for youth."

-Email to CBC News from Scott Cavan, spokesperson, Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs [July 28, 2014]


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