Time to clean up river in Grassy Narrows First Nation, grandmother says

A grandmother from Grassy Narrows First Nation says it's time for the Ontario government to clean up mercury poisoning in the waterways that run near her community.

'Painful reality' is that 'money is more important than us': Judy Da Silva on why there's still mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows

8 years ago
Duration 0:58
Judy Da Silva from Grassy Narrows First Nation says mercury hasn't been cleaned out of the river because the province is valuing money more than the lives of First Nation people there.

A grandmother from Grassy Narrows First Nation says it's time for the Ontario government to clean up mercury poisoning in the waterways that run near her community.

Judy DaSilva, 54, environmental health co-ordinator for Grassy Narrows First Nation, told CBC's Metro Morning on Thursday that mercury poisoning in the Wabigoon River has sickened many members of the community, and that the Ontario government has refused to act despite several reports.

The river was contaminated in the 1960s when an estimated 9,000 kilograms of mercury were dumped into the river by a pulp and paper mill in Dryden, Ont.

"We are not valuable enough to be considered," she said. "We, as Indigenous people, are expendable. And that's why the poison is allowed to be still in the river. Money is more important than us," DaSilva said.

'Please clean the river': Judy Da Silva from Grassy Narrows calls for action from Queen's Park

8 years ago
Duration 1:39
Judy Da Silva Grassy Narrows environmental health coordinator is calling on Premier Kathleen Wynne to clean the river in Grassy Narrows First Nation to stop mercury poisoning.

"You can't see the mercury, but we know it's in there. Being a land-based people and a river people historically, it has been devastating through time," she said. "It has taken time for us to be where we are today."

DaSilva spoke before members of the band rallied on the grounds of Queen's Park to demand that the province clean up the river. A group of young people from the First Nation sang "Home to Me," a song they have written about their community, after speakers insisted the province take action.

DaSilva said the mercury poison has been part of her whole life.

"I have mercury poisoning. It affects me physically. I'm like the age of the mercury poisoning. I was in my mother's womb when the poison was being poured into the river."

'Slow degenerative form of dying'

She said her late father was a commercial fishermen and the family always ate fish from the river. Now, she is suffering.

"It's like slow degenerative form of dying," she said.

The poisoning has robbed the community of its way of life, she said. People have to live on welfare to survive. Some band members have been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and dementia. Some are in hospital. Mercury attacks the brain, she said.

'Their mind is gone': Judy Da Silva talks about how mercury poisoning is killing her friends and family in Grassy Narrows First Nation

8 years ago
Duration 0:38
Judy Da Silva, who suffers from mercury poisoning herself, talks about how the poisoning is killing her friends and family in Grassy Narrows First Nation.

"My mom is still alive and she says they roamed the land freely. They fished, they hunted, they lived off the land. They hardly went to the store. They were very independent economically and socially," she said.

"Now, it's like our hands have been severed.

"The river system is poisoned and it has impacted our community in all levels."

DaSilva said the government hasn't wanted to spend the money to clean up the river despite numerous reports. "For me, I think, it's about the money," she said. 

She said if Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne were to speak to her, she would say: "The bottom line is the river needs to be cleaned up. Can you please clean the river?"

In an emailed statement to CBC News Thursday afternoon, the Aboriginal Affairs Ministry said the government has established "the Ontario-Grassy Narrows Working Group to discuss mercury and other environmental issues in their community."

The statement says the working group has a "broad scope of inquiry," including issues such as health, mercury concerns and fish testing, as well as economic development.

"The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC), in partnership with other ministries, will be carefully reviewing the report and its findings," the statement said, although it did not indicate when the government expects to receive the report.