Food, truth, and reconciliation

Photo: Alan Lissner/freegrassy.net

In recent weeks, two important reports have made the news. One is an article published in The Lancet about pollution-related deaths. That article reports scientific evidence that shows how annually more than nine million deaths can be directly attributed to dirty air, poisoned water, contaminated soil, and toxic workplaces. More than one in six deaths are linked to pollution, more than all deaths combined due to war, hunger, and disasters.

National networks reported on the evidence published in The Lancet on October 19. This Global Pollution Map created by The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health gives a clear picture of the magnitude of the problem. The impact on agriculture and food, more generally, is worrisome.

And while Canada has the lowest numbers in terms of levels of pollution reported, The Lancet article notes that there are pockets of our country that are causing severe problems — namely northern Alberta and northern Ontario. Alberta would be pollution-related to soil and water and air impacted by the oil industry. Northern Ontario could well be industrial contamination from paper mills and mining that has contaminated soil and water.

The release of The Lancet article and subsequent coverage reminded me of another story that broke recently in Canada… yet again. This one deals with the shameful issue of mercury pollution in a community north of Kenora, Ont., called Grassy Narrows. The condition is called Minamata disease, after the city and population in which it was first identified in 1930s Japan.

Would Grassy Narrows fit the bill of one of those pockets of pollution in Canada indicated by The Lancet? I have no doubt.

It is these stories of pollution that sent me running to my bookshelf to revisit these photo essays published more than 40 years ago that chronicle the horrific impact of mercury pollution on water, fish, land and people.  One of the books is titled Minamata (by Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith) published in 1975, the other simply Grassy Narrows (by George Hutchison and Dick Wallace) published in 1977.  Both books detail the stories of communities and people, one in Japan and the other in Canada, poisoned by mercury dumped by corporations — Chisso corporation in Japan and Reed Paper in Dryden. The stories in these books chronicle the illness and eventual death caused by mercury in water and primary food sources such as fish.

These old stories are made new again! Recent reports show that a new generation in Grassy Narrows is still suffering from environmental pollution that has not been cleaned up, despite promises made over decades. 

At one point citizens of the Japanese city and the residents of Grassy Narrows, mostly First Nations people, did not know of each other. But in the late ‘70s, both communities learned of how they were impacted by mercury, and of the startingly similar corporate cover-ups and legal actions that needed to be taken to force recognition of the major health issues caused by the dumping of industrial pollutants laced with mercury.

Now, 40 years later, I would have thought that things were getting better. They aren’t and it angers me.

Recently, Japanese scientists have visited Grassy Narrows again and have noted that Canada is not monitoring or cleaning up a problem that has been known of for decades. Even today, more than 90 per cent of the population in the Grassy Narrows First Nations show signs of mercury poisoning, according to research released in the last year by Japanese experts who have been studying the health of people in the region for decades, alongside their on-going research in Minamata, Japan. Note — it is Japanese scientists who monitored and released the findings. Not Canadian scientists who should be funded by the federal government.

Commentaries like one published a few weeks ago called “Canada has a toxic mercury blind spot”, and documentaries with the youth of Grassy Narrows show the on-going neglect of this First Nations community regarding clean food and water. And while the Ontario government has pledged $85 million towards clean-up, that likely won’t be enough to help those afflicted over the long-term. Those with Minamata disease will need special care in specialized facilities. These families will also need additional support. What of the 20-year-olds who have mercury poisoning?

The younger generation from Grassy Narrows is still living this continuing tragedy and even if the clean-up commitment is met, this story is far from over. Since the damage is afflicting First Nations communities, the federal government should be much more present. United Nations speeches on the importance of truth and reconciliation, and the environment, must sound vacuous to those the hardest hit in Grassy Narrows. They sound deceitful and cruel.

"This underscores the need to get to the bottom of this problem immediately and begin cleaning it up. It also underscores the need for both levels of government, including the Trudeau government, to get behind a cleanup,” says David Sone with the environmental group Earthroots, which has been working with the Grassy Narrows First Nation.

"A single meal can have impacts on (a mother's) fetus if she eats that mercury-laden fish.… That child might struggle with life-long learning disabilities because of that.”

Both books tell the story, in words and photographs, of people poisoned by food. It is the story of pollution and the persistence of mercury — but it is relatable to many other issues around food and the need for clean water, soil and food sources.

It is my early interest in photography and social justice that lead me to acquire these books years ago… and it is my continued interest in food, agriculture and health, that ensures they remain on my bookshelf. Unfortunately, I can’t find them in the public library.

Why do some things take so long? Callousness… greed… and raw entitlement.

Perhaps we should feed Grassy Narrows fish to the federal Liberal caucus as they dine in the Parliamentary cafeteria… as they say, the proof is in the eating of the pudding.

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