Mercury Poisoning and Our Neighbours in Grassy Narrows

In December 2019, St. Paul’s, Fort Garry, led by the commitment and organizing efforts of our interim minister, the Rev. Canon Mary Lysecki and myself, held a Write for Rights petition-signing bee in solidarity with the Indigenous community of Grassy Narrows. They were joining forces with other communities of faith and organizations, including Amnesty International, to demand that the federal government fulfill its long-standing commitment to construct a health care and healing centre in the community for those still suffering from the devastating impacts of mercury poisoning.

The Anishinaabe First Nation of Grassy Narrows was once a largely self-sustaining community dependent on traditional practices, a successful commercial fishery, and tourist operations located on the English–Wabigoon River systems, approximately 100 kilometres downstream from the city of Dryden and the Reed Paper Company.

Beginning in the 1960s, Reed Paper dumped tons-upon-tons of toxic mercury, a by-product of paper bleaching, into the Wabigoon River. By 1970, the Ontario government closed down the commercial fishery and issued formal warnings against fish consumption, a dietary staple of Grassy Narrows residents, due to the extremely high levels of toxic mercury found in fish. This lethal contamination destroyed the physical health and economic base of the community. Scientists compared the bio-accumulation and intergenerational health impacts to Minimata disease in Japan, where 900 people died as a result of consuming fish contaminated by mercury dumped into the watercourses by a Japanese chemical plant.

The effects are insidious and, given accumulation over time, devastating and appalling. Mercury bio-accumulates in the body. Over time and with repeated exposure through fish consumption, mercury causes sufficient neurological damage as to severely and negatively impact human health – from slurred speech to severely impairing motor skills – from balance to breathing. The impact of this disease has taken a terrible toll on the community. According to Amnesty International, “A report released last year shows mercury poisoning is having serious, detrimental effects on the health of youth and mothers in the First Nation, finding that youth in Grassy Narrows are demonstrating a higher prevalence of the chronic conditions and emotional and behavioural issues that are associated with maternal fish consumption during pregnancy.”

The issues of continuing mercury seepage into the river, the obligation to remediate and restore, the matters of responsibility and compensation, and the on-going health care of community members has become a favourite sport of successive provincial and federal governments. It has been a political football that has been kicked around for over 50 years.

In 2017, the federal government promised to construct a facility that would provide care and healing for community members still suffering from mercury poisoning. That commitment remains unfulfilled.

The Write for Rights campaign, of which St. Paul’s community is now a part, demands that the current federal government fulfill this essential obligation and keep the issue of our suffering neighbours in-sight and in-mind. To sign the petition and to obtain further information on the Write for Rights campaign, contact Amnesty International. – Peter Globensky, St. Paul’s, Fort Garry parishioner

You can view more photos from the Write for Rights campaign at the St. Paul’s, Fort Garry Facebook page.

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