Grassy Narrows – It’s time to act on one of the worst health crises in Canada

Chief Rudy Turtle of the Grassy Narrows First Nation describes a community that was once able to thrive from living on the land. But all that changed in the 1960s when the waterways flowing through this northern Ontario community were poisoned by mercury dumped by an upstream pulp mill. 

Now, after decades of struggle to draw attention to their situation, a new report released by the First Nation conclusively demonstrates just how devastating that harm has been.

The report, based on an extensive household survey of community members, compares key dimensions of health at Grassy Narrows to other First Nations and to the general population.

What the report depicts is one of the worst community health crises in Canada.

Mercury poisoning affects both the body and the mind. The poisoning of river system at Grassy Narrows took away crucial sources of commercial income and left community members with a stark, and brutally unfair choice: risk eating the fish or turn their backs on a vital, affordable food source and a central tradition of their culture. 

The new report, authored by Dr. Donna Mergler, a highly respected expert on mercury and community health, concluded that many key indicators of physical and mental health are much worse in Grassy Narrows than in other First Nations in Ontario or across the country. While the federal and provincial governments have never acknowledged a single case of mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows, the report concludes that the severe health crisis in the community “cannot be understood without taking into account their history of mercury poisoning and its consequences.”

The facts set out in the report are horrific, tragic and far-ranging, including one of the highest suicides rates in Canada. 

Many of the report’s findings resonate with what community members have told Amnesty International over the many years of working together. But the thing that stood out for me was the fact that Grassy Narrows has fewer elders than other First Nations, which demonstrates both the extent of individual harm that has been experienced and how this crisis threatens the ability to pass on their culture and traditions to future generations.

The report is the first comprehensive health study at Grassy Narrows and it took place only because of a long struggle by the community which demanded that it take place. Knowing that the river system was contaminated by such a lethal poison, the federal and provincial governments should have been carrying out this kind of research and reporting all along so that the people of Grassy Narrows could receive the medical care and others supports they deserve. 

Now that the report is out, and the concerns long raised by Grassy Narrows are irrefutably documented, there is no possible excuse for governments not to acknowledge the impact of mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows and to do something about it. 

In recent months, the efforts of the people of Grassy Narrows have led to a number of important commitments from the federal and provincial government, including a clean-up of the river system and the delivery of specialized health care.

However, the new report makes clear that the the needs resulting from this health crisis are many and require a wide range of interventions to help restore the health of this community. The need for action cannot and must not be ignored any longer. As Chief Turtle said at the launch of the report, “It’s time.”