12/10/2012 05:24 EST | Updated 02/09/2013 05:12 EST

Decades Later, Mercury Still Poisons These Native Reserves


Imagine, if you will, a disease that affects only a specific population group whose symptoms can include muscular numbness, hearing and speech defects, paralysis, insanity, coma and even death. Then consider this, as bad as the symptoms are for adults and children, for pregnant women and their yet unborn babies, the effects are devastating; a generational legacy of deformed infants, brain damaged as they grow older and possibly dying a painful death well before they should.

Imagine as well that such a disease resulted not from unknown factors but was man-induced. Then imagine that such a disease ran rampant right here in Canada, in northern Ontario and today very few are even aware it ever happened.

Back in the early 1960s the Dryden Chemical Company in Dryden, Ontario ran a process plant, which made "chloralkali." This substance produces chlorine, sodium hydroxide and hydrogen, useful chemicals when reacting with other compounds giving us much of today's creature comforts from energy-efficient building materials and solar energy panels, to pharmaceuticals and crop protection products, to electronics and fibre optics, amongst much else.

Sadly though this chemical company, in producing reams of chloralkali, utilized the mercury cell method. The results were disastrous. The Dryden Pulp and Paper Company used the sodium hydroxide and chlorine emanating from the process for bleaching paper during production. The company then discharged their liquid sewage waste, tonnes of it, into the nearby Wabigoon-English River system. This poisoned not only the water but eventually the fish as well. Of course fish was the main source of food and nutrients for two First Nations Reserves, Grassy Narrows and White Dog not to mention the related fishing tourism industry.

It took a few years but finally the mercury problem was identified in 1969 and a year later the company was ordered by the government to cease its release of mercury into the river. It was estimated that between 1962 and 1970 over 9,000 kg of mercury had been poured into the Wabigoon-English River system. And even though ordered to stop the liquid sewage dumping, the company continued its airborne emissions of mercury till shortly before it closed down in 1976.

Despite the astounding levels of mercury dumped into the waterway and then the atmosphere, there was no real sense of urgency in getting the message out. In fact many mixed messages about the safety of eating the fish seemed to be the order of the day.

Minamata disease is the syndrome caused by mercury poisoning. It was named after a disaster in in a small southern Japanese town of Minamata where in the 1950s the Chisso Chemical Company dumped over 27-tonnes of Mercury compound into Minamata Bay. Tragically it resulted in over 3,000 inhabitants contracting Mercury poisoning with more than 300 deaths.

The Japanese understood all too well the effects of Mercury poisoning. Indeed Japanese scientists having learned about the situation at Grassy Narrows and White Dog sent a team of scientists and doctors led by Masazumi Harada, to the reserves in the mid 1970s followed by four subsequent visits, the final one this past summer, to document the progress of the disease. What they found was produced in a report released this year; the only comprehensive study ever undertaken.

Astoundingly, more than four decades later the effects of mercury poisoning persist. Japanese scientists examined 160 adults from Grassy Narrows and White Dog reserve. Over 33 per cent were diagnosed with the disease and a total of 58 per cent were still affected in some way by the mercury. Indeed while the levels of mercury in the fish were lower than decades earlier they were still above safe levels. So over 40 years later children and grand children from these reserves are still being impacted by mercury poisoning. Sadly Dr. Masazumi Harada, the world's leading expert om Minamata Disease passed away one week after the release of this report.


Grassy Narrows Minimata victims

And what of compensation? Both the federal and provincial governments long turned a blind eye. Unlike in Japan where the government and private industry finally took responsibility offering their victims between $2,000 and $8,000 a month in compensation depending on severity of the case. In Canada, where after many years the government has finally allowed for some compensation payments range from $250 to $800 per month.

The First Nations consider themselves the "stewards of the earth." Aboriginal elders tell their people '"treat the Earth well; it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children."

Fifty years after big business poured tonnes of poisonous mercury into the Wabigoon-English river system while society turned its back and did nothing, the river has found a way to give back. Discussions are underway with the Grassy Narrows First Nations to use their traditional waterways to potentially create safe clean hydro electric power. Such partnerships help to restore trust and bring dignity back to those we treated with such disdain.

We have driven First Nations from their traditional lands, poisoned their waters and trampled their rights We have not yet learned to treat the Earth with respect and have left a legacy of pollution for all our children. It is time we find ways to both compensate for past wrongs while partnering with First Nations to help build a better future.