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Grassy Narrows: We must mobilize to end the toxic divide

    Thursday, December 5, 2019 - 21:08
    On June 20, 2019, members of the Grassy Narrows First Nation travelled 1,700 km from their homes in northwest Ontario to Toronto to protest against the devastating mercury crisis that has persisted for decades in their lands.
    Photo Credit: 
    Alan Lissner

    In the coming weeks and months, Amnesty will be doing everything we can to support the people of Grassy Narrows to finally achieve the justice they deserve. The youth-led campaign for mercury justice is one of the focal cases of this year’s global Write for Rights campaign, marking the beginning of a year-long campaign mobilizing Amnesty members and supporters in Canada and around the world. Sign up for Write for Rights now.

    The people of Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwest Ontario have been hard-hit by mercury poisoning, after the government allowed a pulp mill to dump 10 tons of waste into a river in the 1960s. The damaging effects are still seen today.

    Next year marks 50 years since the public first became aware of mercury poisoning at Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows). In all this time, the people of the Grassy Narrows First Nation have never received the help they need to deal with the devastating, and still ongoing, consequences of the poisoning of their river system and the fish on which they depend.

    While the campaign for mercury justice led by the youth of Grassy Narrows is gaining momentum, it’s clear that a lot more pressure is needed to break through the now deeply entrenched patterns of delay and deceit that have denied the people of Grassy Narrows their basic human rights for the last five decades.

    Beginning in the 1960s, an upstream pulp mill dumped an estimated 10 tons of mercury waste into the English and Wabigoon river system. The company is long gone, but deadly mercury remains in the river sediment and continues to accumulate in fish.

    Symptoms of mercury poisoning, including seizures and loss of motor control, are widespread at Grassy Narrows, including among young people born long after the community was assured that the mercury contamination would all be washed away. Despite ample evidence of the severe harms experienced by the people of Grassy Narrows, they have never received specialized health care and other supports needed to deal with the impacts. Community-led health studies have confirmed that the community’s overall health is now worse than other First Nations’ and much, much worse than the general public’s.

    In 2017, the Trudeau government promised that it would deal with the crisis of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows “once and for all”. The federal minister responsible for health care and other basic services in First Nations communities promised to fund a specialized care facility for community members suffering from the debilitating effects of mercury poisoning. And last May, the Minister announced that he was travelling to Grassy Narrows to sign an agreement to allow construction of the care facility to finally begin.

    However, that’s not how things worked out. Although then Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan told reporters that the federal government was prepared to enter a long-term, legally binding commitment to fully fund the mercury home, the Toronto Star later reported that the proposed agreement was rejected by Grassy Narrows because it contained none of those commitments. Instead, what was actually offered by the federal government was partial funding that could be withdrawn at any time.

    Federal officials have said that their proposal simply reflected the standard terms for government agreements. However, business as usual is the opposite of what this unique and tragic situation requires.

    In the coming weeks and months, Amnesty will be doing everything we can to support the people of Grassy Narrows to finally achieve the justice they deserve. The youth-led campaign for mercury justice is one of the focal cases of this year’s global Write for Rights campaign. We’re hopeful that an outpouring of support from around the world will help put pressure on the federal government to finally turn promises into concrete actions consistent with the urgency of the situation.

    But we’re not stopping there. Write for Rights will mark the beginning of a year-long campaign mobilizing Amnesty members and supporters in Canada and around the world. At stake is the right of every young person at Grassy Narrows to grow up in a healthy environment and a thriving community. Also at issue is the deeper concern about the racism and indifference that has denied the people of Grassy Narrows their basic human rights for so long.

    Days before Minister O’Regan was in Grassy Narrows, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxic wastes, Baskut Tuncak, also visited Grassy Narrows. The UN expert’s conclusion: “There exists a pattern in Canada where marginalized groups, Indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada.” 

    This story was originally published in the December 2019 issue of Activist magazine