Shocking government indifference to the health of the people of Grassy Narrows

The mercury contamination of the waters of the Grassy Narrows First Nation – a situation now a half-century old and still unresolved – is one of the more notorious environmental disasters in Canadian history.

Astonishingly, information obtained by the community over the last year, along with recent media reports, paints a picture of the treatment of Grassy Narrows at the hands of both the federal and provincial governments that is even worse than anyone had imagined.

In the 1960s, the provincial government allowed a pulp mill in the northwest Ontario town of Dryden to release chemical by-products and waste, including an estimate 9 tonnes of mercury, into the English and Wabigoon river system. By the early 1970s it was discovered that natural processes had transformed the mercury into the deadly form of methyl-mercury which had accumulated in fish to such levels that commercial fishing in these waters was shut down.

By this time, the people of Grassy Narrows were facing the beginning of a severe health crisis. Independent studies by some of the world’s leading experts on mercury poisoning have repeatedly confirmed that the effects of mercury poisoning are pervasive at Grassy Narrows. Last week, scientists from Minamata Japan released their latest study on Grassy Narrows stating that 90 percent of residents show signs of mercury poisoning. 

Despite this, the federal and provincial governments have never acknowledged mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows. And no specialized care for mercury poisoning has ever been provided.

The federal and provincial governments do provide financial compensation to some community members who suffer from symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning. But under the terms of the compensation plan, the governments don’t acknowledge that mercury poisoning is necessarily the cause of their illness. The majority of people who the independent experts identified as suffering from mercury poisoning do not get compensation.

However, a review of government documents carried out on behalf of Grassy Narrows found that the federal government has long had alarming evidence of the severity of the poisoning. Between 1978 and 1994, Health Canada tested blood from the umbilical cords of 139 infants from Grassy Narrows. Although Health Canada says that mercury levels they discovered were within Canadian safety guidelines, according to environmental health expert Dr. Donna Mergler the federal government’s guidelines are outdated and the levels of mercury found in the umbilical cords is actually high enough to affect children’s development. Grassy Narrows has been trying to gain access to the original data for more than two decades.

The province has also failed to monitor the site of the pulp mill responsible for contaminating the river system. Other pulp mills using similar chemical processes are known to be responsible for soil and ground water contamination that continues to leach into the river system. Over a year ago, a former worker at the Dryden contacted Grassy Narrows to tell them that he participated in the burial of drums of mercury after the contamination of the river was discovered. Although Grassy Narrows shared this information with the province, in June the Toronto Star reported that the province had still not tested the water near the site. 

The province has also ignored repeated calls to clean up the river. Earlier this year, a new scientific study called for intervention to prevent the mercury that remains in the river sediment continuing to enter the food chain. The province initially claimed that there is no evidence that a clean-up was needed or even possible. Although the province has since acknowledged the need for remediation of the river, Premier Kathleen Wynne continues to raise claims that attempting to clean-up the river could make things worse – a position refuted not only by the latest study, but also a study done for the province more than 30 years earlier. According to Cabinet documents obtained by the Toronto Star, in the 1984 the provincial environment minister recommended clean-up of the river but the idea was abandoned at some point in the discussion between the provincial and federal governments.

On top of all this, it has also been revealed that officials within the provincial environment ministry had repeatedly flagged concerns that the province’s continued efforts to restart clearcutting could lead to new mercury being introduced to the river system through runoff. When Grassy Narrows asked for an environmental impact assessment to examine the potential risks associated with clearcutting, the province dismissed their concerns about further mercury contamination.

All of this points to a level of government indifference to the lives and well-being of the people of Grassy Narrows that should outrage all Canadians. If the federal and provincial governments had acted on information available to them three decades ago, generations of Grassy Narrows children would have had the opportunity to grow up in a much healthier environment. Instead, both levels of government have kept vital information from the community that it needed to address the health crisis, denied the victims of mercury poisoning proper health care, and recklessly risked further contamination of their waters.