Generations of Grassy Narrows youth are paying the price of government inaction
“We are proud of our kids. They amaze me every day with their humour, their pride, and their strength. They should not have to fight again and again for basic justice that others in Canada take for granted. They should not have to overcome hunger, poverty, and poison in order to succeed.” Judy Da Silva, Grassy Narrows, quoted today in The Toronto Star
One of the things that has stayed with me with from Amnesty’s first official research mission to Grassy Narrows, almost 15 years ago, was the story shared by a young mother who had only recently learned about the dangers of mercury contamination of their river system. Throughout her pregnancy she had eaten a lot of fish caught in the local rivers because she knew that wild food is part of a healthy diet and that eating fish is part of what has always connected generation after generation to their culture. But when we spoke she was very worried about whether she might have inadvertently harmed her child.
This story, of the terrible choices forced on a people whose rivers have been poisoned, is the story of many young women at Grassy Narrows. And a new community health study released today confirms their worst fears.
According to the study, authored by Dr. Donna Mergler and based on a comprehensive survey of children and youth at Grassy Narrows, young people in the community are much more likely than other First Nations youth to suffer from chronic health problems, including developmental and cognitive issues associated with mercury poisoning. The report draws a direct link to exposure to mercury when pregnant women eating fish from the poisoned river system. Critically, the report also documents how the contamination of the natural environmental, and the erosion of cultural traditions of living on the land, has also had a deadly toll, as loss of livelihoods, culture and identity contributes to social strain in the lives of young people.
In other words, eating fish from the poisoned waters, and the challenge of maintaining traditions of fishing, both pose real risks to the youth of Grassy Narrows.
"The tradition and culture of fishing and fish consumption have been passed down from one generation to the next. However, since the 1970s, so, too, has the loss of the traditional economy, unemployment and sickness." - from the new report
But what is perhaps most tragic is the fact that so much of this harm could have been avoided if the federal and provincial governments had not treated the people of Grassy Narrows in such a blatantly discriminatory way.
Despite knowing that they had allowed an upstream pulp mill to dump massive quantities of mercury into the river system in the 1960s, and despite having medical evidence of the harm that had been caused to the people of Grassy Narrows, the federal and provincial governments have effectively washed their hands of the issue.
They agreed to set up a narrow and restrictive compensation fund in the mid 1980s but they never conducted any rigorous follow up studies on how the community had been effected. In fact, governments downplayed the mercury risks, telling the community that the contamination would soon dissipate.
When Amnesty began our work in support of the people of Grassy Narrows, the federal and provincial governments were actively denying that mercury poisoning was even an issue.
The study released today is part of an ongoing community-led health initiative. It is taking place only because the community insisted that it happen, in the face of government denial and delay.
The young people of Grassy Narrows are well-known for their resilience and determination to protect their rights. Amnesty first visited the community on the heals of a blockade launched by the youth 16 years ago and which still stands today.
Walks, vigils and other protests have all had an impact. They have held off the threat of further environmental loss from the clear cut logging promoted by the province. And they have secured commitments to clean up the river and provide specialized health care to the community.
These promises now need to be turned into action, without delay.
Today, youth from Grassy Narrows were in Ottawa to bring the new report to the attention of the federal government. The report includes numerous concrete recommendations for immediate action. The people of Grassy Narrows are also calling for fair compensation for all members of the community to help recover and rebuild from the harm that has been inflicted.
Amnesty International fully supports these calls for justice.