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Mercury Poisoning Five Decades Later for Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations

Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations outside Dryden, Ontario, continue to suffer from decades-long mercury poisoning stemming from the 1960s, a leading world researcher has found
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It has been nearly five decades, but the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario are still plagued by mercury poisoning despite numerous remediation measures and cleanup promises, a leading Japanese expert has found.

In fact, said doctor and mercury-poisoning expert Masazumi Harada, even two generations after Dryden Chemical Co. dumped 10 metric tons of neurotoxins into the English-Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970, babies are being born deformed, and 59 percent of the 160 people he examined have symptoms of mercury poisoning. Moreover, 39 percent of that 59 percent had Minamata disease, brought on by acute, long-term mercury poisoning. Symptoms include tunnel vision, loss of coordination, tremors and seizures.

Harada is known worldwide for his research into mercury poisoning, sparked by cases in the Japanese town of Minamata, where the disease got its name. He began studying the Grassy Narrows and White Dog communities in the 1970s and returned several times, the most recent trip in 2010. The latest report, Mercury Pollution in First Nations Groups in Ontario, Canada: 35 years of Canadian Minamata Disease, came out in 2011 in Japan and was released in English on June 4.

In 1975, Grassy Narrows First Nation residents showed internal mercury levels that were triple the limit set by Health Canada, the Canadian Press said, and White Dog First Nation levels were seven times higher than the health ministry’s suggested limit. In addition, their continued inability to fish in the river has deprived community members of a key food and income source, as the fishery that was an economic mainstay had to shut down, and the fish in the rivers were a major source of sustenance.

Although the federal government has set up a compensation system, many of the people affected by mercury are receiving aid. Those who do get aid receive $250 to $800 monthly.

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Clear-cutting on Grassy Narrows has only compounded the problem, Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister told the Canadian Press. Last August the reserve won a court injunction stopping the logging, but the federal government has announced plans to continue.

A group of youths walked the 1,200 miles from Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (as Grassy Narrows is known), arriving in Toronto on June 4 to bring attention to the continuing problems and participate in River Run 2012, a week of events and political action designed to raise public awareness of the issue. Provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne attended, but Premiere Dalton McGuinty did not.

“Both the federal and provincial governments need to recognize and effectively address the lasting issue of mercury exposure in First Nation communities along the English Wabigoon River system,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said in a statement. The AFN circulated a petition last year in support of Grassy Narrows. “The action by these youth walkers must lead to a real commitment from governments. First Nations across the country stand in support of these youth and the people of all affected communities.”

Aboriginal leaders are angry.

“The federal and provincial governments’ callous disregard for the health and well-being of the Grassy Narrows community is appalling,” said AFN Regional Chief Angus Toulouse, speaking for the Chiefs of Ontario, in a statement. “The poverty and ill health currently being experienced by Grassy Narrows’ citizens are the direct consequences of unregulated development, and disregarding the community’s right to free, prior and informed consent on activities that occur within their traditional territory.”