Dalton McGuinty says he’ll study report on Grassy Narrows mercury poisoning
Published On Tue Apr 06 2010
By Tanya Talaga Queen's Park Bureau
The federal and provincial governments refuse to recognize the lingering effects of mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows First Nation – a problem first identified 40 years ago, aboriginal and human rights groups say.
The Ontario government has yet to take responsibility for allowing a paper mill to dump 20,000 pounds of mercury into the Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970, said Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister at a press conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the provincial ban on fishing the river. Grassy Narrows is a community of nearly 1,000 people about an hour outside of Kenora.
Health problems and unemployment are the legacy of mercury poisoning, Fobister said. He wants mercury safety guidelines revised and the poisoning of his people recognized.
A newly translated study by Japanese scientists Dr. Masazumi Harada indicates 79 per cent of 187 people tested in 2002 and 2004 had or may have had Minimata disease – a condition arising from exposure to methyl-mercury. Tremors, tunnel vision, impaired hearing and speech and loss of muscular co-ordination and sensation in the extremities are hallmarks of the condition.
Premier Dalton McGuinty responded to the chief’s concerns by saying the province has a “heavy responsibility” to study Harada’s findings, because they conflict with what the federal government claims – that mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows is under control.
“It seems we have conflicting data and information,” McGuinty told reporters in Peterborough where he was visiting a health clinic. “We have a report, apparently, which says we have a continuing problem and this contrasts with the federal government which is saying, ‘Well, things are under control’.”
Harada first tested community members in 1975. He found people with mercury levels over three times the Health Canada limit in Grassy Narrows and seven times the limit in White Dog. When Harada returned in 2004, the people he tested in 1975 with mercury levels in their bodies considered above health guidelines were dead.
Grassy Narrows residents were told not to eat the fish due to mercury contamination in the 1970s, said Fobister. “Over the years we have fought hard to find the truth as to how widespread this contamination was,” he said.
Grassy Narrows grandmother Barbara Fobister travelled 36 hours by train with her granddaughter Latoya Assin to be at the press conference and the planned Wednesday rally at Queen’s Park. Latoya, 9, does not eat the fish or drink the water at home on Grassy Narrows. “It is too polluted,” Assin said.
Grassy Narrows people say Health Canada stopped testing them for mercury poisoning nearly 10 years ago because their mercury levels were well below federal guidelines. People began to eat the fish again.
While the federal and provincial governments say contamination is no longer a problem, Harada’s research indicates the possibility of congenital Minamata disease is high, said Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse. Children are being born with neurological problems, mental deficiency and cerebral palsy, he said.
“What the people of Grassy Narrows seek is justice – for those that have passed on, those that are living and those that have yet to be born,” Toulouse said.
The situation in Grassy Narrows is “utterly shocking” said Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin.
“One can’t imagine this kind of injustice going unaddressed for 40 years in a non-aboriginal community,” he said.
Many in Grassy Narrows are sick, unemployed and live in poverty due to poisoning, he said. “It is as if the kind of severe health problems and chronic unemployment are more acceptable because it is on a reserve.”
With files from Rob Ferguson