Breaking The Norm Of Contaminated Water For First Nations In Canada


Katherine Everest

Between 1962 and 1970, the Dryden Chemical Paper Mill dumped ten tonnes of waste mercury into the Wabigoon-English River, approximately 320km upstream from the Asubpeeschoseewagong Nitam-Anishinaabeg (Grassy Narrows First Nation) community. Fifty years on, the First Nation is still feeling the effects, and awaiting appropriate government action.

A study published on April 27th by the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and TÉLUQ University found a correlation between the early mortality of Grassy Narrows First Nation People, and exposure to higher levels of mercury as a result of freshwater fish consumption from the river. Mercury exposure was almost five times higher for those who died before the age of 60, in comparison to their counterparts who lived beyond the age of 60. Specifically, ‘‘the risk of mortality increased by 155% when the mercury concentration in the hair was greater than or equal to 15 micrograms/gram (μg/g) at least once during the sampling period.’’ According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the recommended hair limit of mercury concentration is 1 μg/g, and generally hair mercury concentration does not exceed 10 μg/g.

On April 3rd, the Canadian Federal Government and the Grassy Narrows First Nation people signed an agreement for the construction of a nursing home-style, health-care centre specifically set up to deal with the ongoing health implications arising from widespread community mercury poisoning. Under the agreement the First Nation is claiming $88 million in operational funding for the next 30 years. The nursing home-style centre will save victims, and family members of victims of mercury poisoning, from travelling long distances to healthcare facilities in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg to receive treatment and visit loved ones. While the signing of the agreement is an achievement in itself, the funding has not yet been approved by the government.

Indigenous Services Minister, Marc Miller, said he is confident the funding will come through, however urged the Grassy Narrows community to keep in mind a memorandum must still be passed through Cabinet before funding can be guaranteed. “It is a very unique situation. First, medical services are generally provided by the provinces. So, we need, in a very practical sense, to discuss with the province of Ontario the very specialized care that will be provided to the people of Grassy Narrows, and it is also a question of financial commitment,” he told Radio-Canada.

Due to the nature of mercury poisoning, or what it is also referred to at times, Minamata disease (named after the devastating effects the release of methylmercury in Chisso Corporation’s industrial wastewater had on Minimata City in Japan), effects are felt intergenerationally. When pregnant women are exposed to high levels of mercury, their unborn babies are also. This, combined with the inaction of government, has meant intergenerational effects continue to be felt by the Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Campaigning at a press conference for the health-care centre on December 3rd, 2019, Grassy Narrows Elder, Bill Fobister told Global News, “It’s a reality. I have mercury poisoning too. My parents had mercury poisoning. They all died. And all my brothers had mercury poisoning, and they have died. I’m sort of the last oldest one within our generation. My kids have mercury poisoning. My grandkids have mercury poisoning. It’s not healthy for my family. When you have mercury, you have it for life. They haven’t found a cure for it.”

Dr. Masanori Hanada, a Japanese doctor who opened the Research Centre for Minamata Research, and has been heavily instrumental in research conducted in Grassy Narrows, told Aboriginal Multi-Media Society in 2016 through his teams studies, “We found that more than 90 per cent of the population in these communities have sensory disturbance.” Sensory disturbance is one of the many symptoms of mercury poisoning, along with ataxia, general muscle weakness, speech impairment, and cognitive disability. Continued exposure to high levels of mercury can lead to permanent brain and kidney damage.

Since the dumping of mercury at Dryden Mill was discovered in 1970, both the federal Canadian Government, and the Ontario Government- the province the Grassy Narrows First Nation belongs to- have been slow to act. Promises to clean up the river, provide compensation for health care issues and a decrease in commercial fishing activity arising from the government’s lack of progress to clean the river, and funding for health care have in the past not been reinforced with action.

Victims of mercury poisoning within the Grassy Narrows community were promised ongoing legal compensation in 1985 after a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was finalised between the federal government, the Ontario provincial government and the two companies in charge of the paper mill at the time of contamination, Reed Limited, and Great Lakes Forest Products. Under the MOA a portion of the settlement owed to victims by the Government was deposited into a trust fund, which the Province of Ontario is responsible for replenishing when the balance drops below $100,000. Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief, Rudy Turtle, told Radio-Canada this month, to date only 6% of the community have received the financial compensation promised by the government.

The Ontario Government is also still yet to clean the river of the contamination found in the 70’s, and has recently been given a technical paper by Dr. John Rudd suggesting evidence of a potential ongoing mercury leak at the Dryden Paper Mill. Dr. Rudd led the Wabigoon River Mercury Remediation Project, and has provided the government with advice on how to clean up the river system. In 2018 the Ontario Government set up a trust fund, worth $85 million, to address the mercury contamination in the river, however no further action has been taken. On their website they claim they are still in the process of ‘making decisions regarding payments from the trust towards remediation activities in the river.’

Furthermore, the construction of a health centre within Grassy Narrows to cater for the specific needs of residents suffering from mercury poisoning should have been set up far earlier than fifty years after the discovery of the contamination.

The contamination of the Wabigoon-English river is not the only incident of water contamination facing First Nation Peoples of Canada. The Guardian revealed, as of October 2018, 50 First Nation communities were on long-term boil water advisories, meaning they had not had access to drinkable water for at least a year or longer. Before being elected in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in his election campaign he would lift all drinking-water advisories on reserves by March 2021. When his Liberal government came into power, 105 reserves had water advisories. Government data from November 2015 to January 2020 indicates Trudeau’s government has managed to lift 87 reserves out of these advisories, however 39 reserves were allocated advisories in the same period.

The lack of priority afforded to the Grassy Narrows First Nation people, and wider First Nations across Canada in regard to providing safe water is saddening. Prime Minister Trudeau must follow through on his promise to lift all drinking-water advisories across reserves in Canada, but furthermore his government must also put more pressure on the Ontario Government to follow through on their obligations to the Grassy Narrows First Nation. Thus far, the Ontario Government have failed their First Nations Peoples. Now is the time for them to right the neglectful actions they have permitted in the past.

This means taking action on advice provided to them to clean up the Wabigoon-English river, ensuring protocols and monitoring mechanisms are put in place to prevent any further leaks, providing all compensation promised to all parties owed said compensation, following through on agreements reached throughout negotiations with the federal government in the development of a health care facility within Grassy Narrows, and respecting the land that is owned by the Grassy Narrows First Nations People by consulting with them on any future projects that may affect their water or any land resources.

Minister Miller and Chief Turtle are set to meet within 14 days of the release of the 2020 federal budget, which will be tabled on March 30th. Hopefully, this meeting can be one for planning the construction of the new health care centre with secured funds, rather than another example of empty promises, and continued inaction.

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