“It is long past time for the government to take responsibility to fix what they have broken, clean up our river, and help us out rather than kicking us while we are down.” — Grassy Narrows Chief Roger Fobister Sr.
For almost a decade, Amnesty International has stood with the people of Grassy Narrows in their long struggle to determine for themselves the fate of the forest and waters on which they depend. This campaign– led by the people of Grassy Narrow, and supported by a wide range of social justice and environmental organizations — has had remarkable success with company after company announcing that they will not log at Grassy Narrows, or handle wood cut at Grassy Narrows, unless the community gives its consent. These remarkable victories, however, have taken place against the backdrop of an ongoing, unresolved and largely unacknowledged tragedy.
Throughout the 1960s, an upstream pulp and paper mill dumped approximately 20,000 pounds or 9 metric tonnes of mercury into rivers and lakes vital to the people of the Grassy Narrows and the neighboring White Dog First Nation. When the contamination was discovered in 1970, there were already signs of severe mercury poisoning – including loss of muscle control and other neurological degeneration — among fishers, guides and others who regularly ate fish from the contaminated waters.
In the decades that have followed, community members have reported an ongoing health crisis, with high rates of neurological impairments and other chronic illnesses. Tragically, these chronic problems are even hurting young people born long after the communities were assured that their waters would be safe again.
Despite this, the provincial government has never publicly acknowledged that mercury dumping — which it permitted — has led to mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows and Whitedog. The limited compensation that is provided to people with symptoms associated with mercury poisoning is based on outdated models of how mercury affects human health. And the federal and provincial governments have failed to carry any significant ongoing monitoring of the health of the people at Grassy Narrows and Whitedog.
On top of this, the provincial government continues to make plans to restart clearcut logging at Grassy Narrows, without addressing the role of clearcutting in introducing additional mercury into the water system.
A government commissioned review, carried out in 2009 and publicly released earlier this summer, is highly critical of the government’s failure to address the medical needs of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog. The independent scientific review noted that there should have been “extensive examinations and follow-up” from the 1970s forward and that many of the current health problems faced by the people of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog “have not been properly diagnosed and documented.”
In fact, the only ongoing research g has been carried out by doctors from Minamata, Japan. Mercury poisoning is widely known as “Minamata disease” because of the widespread deaths and severe, ongoing health problems still faced by thousands of people as the result of decades of industrial methylmercury releases into Minamata Bay. After years of the struggle by the survivors and their families, Minamata has emerged as a centre of expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of Minamata disease. In fact, the government commissioned review released this summer noted the contrast between the unmet medical needs of the people of Grassy Narrows and the “superb health care” now enjoyed by the people of Minamata.
This week a team of scientists from Minamata will be back in Canada to carry out new studies in Grassy Narrows and Whitedog, including the first study in these communities of potential impacts of fetal exposure to mercury contamination.
It’s hoped that this visit will at last put enough pressure on the provincial government that it can no longer ignore the health crisis facing these First Nations.