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Ontario government announces $85 million to clean up mercury from Grassy Narrows

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Victory for the Grassy Narrows First Nation and surrounding communities has finally come after struggling for years to get the Ontario government to remove the mercury that has been poisoning the land and water for generations.

As well as a physical victory for the people who live in the region, it is also a political victory as Kathleen Wynne's government has finally resolved the end the "gross neglect" of the mercury-contaminated Wabigoon River after generations of lobbying by the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and nearby Whitedog First Nation.

This victory was made possible by the tireless efforts of Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister and community activists such as Judy Da Silva, as well as the residents of the Anisnishaabe Treaty Three territory.

The affected communities in turn were able to rely on a large network of activists from Canada and Japan, which kept the issue in the media and helped to counter the "Attawapiskat Effect," which means that communities that are far from Ottawa and are reserves or have high Indigenous populations receive less attention. Distance from power plus societal racism dooms some communities to neglect and marginalization.

River Runs were highlights of the summer where members of the Grassy Narrows First Nation and White Dog First Nation were able to come down to Toronto, where the Ontario legislature is located, and hook up with Toronto allies who have become friends.

There are more than a few clans who have pledged to defend their Northern cousins in the different and unique way each group can, from Martin to Bear to Loon.

Couple this with the passion from non-Indigenous allies, including the amazing support from the Japanese who had gone through a similar terrible mercury poisoning first discovered in Minamata, Japan, in 1956.

In fact, during the long process to get recognition and medical assistance from the Ontario government, the community received more support from Japanese scientists than they did from the Canadian scientific community.

Dr. Masazumi Harada, a world renowned mercury poisoning specialist from Japan, has studied the effects on the Grassy Narrows and White Dog communities for over 30 years.

The compassion from these scientists and their teams are in sharp contrast to the bureaucrats from our own government. There was an understanding that went beyond the language barrier, a shared humanity that somehow was not, or could not, be shown by our very own doctors and scientists.

These Japanese emissaries tell of the firsthand experience back home regarding Minamata disease and its devastating effects, and the denial from their own governing bodies as the disease spread. The sickness was finally acknowledged to be result of mercury poisoning after thirty-six years of denial.

Minamata disease, named after the city where it was first discovered, is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Symptoms include ataxia, numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision, and damage to hearing and speech. In extreme cases, insanity, paralysis, coma, and death follow within weeks of the onset of symptoms. A congenital form of the disease can also affect fetuses in the womb. 

It is especially this congenital form that damages future generations, on top of the fact that a lack of a proper clean up of the land and water has meant exposure to the toxins reoccurs. This is why it was so vital that a proper clean up of the infected areas needs to occur so the mercury can be finally removed from the environment.

"The people of Grassy Narrows have fought for more than 40 years to hear [this]," David Suzuki said. "The government needs to promptly implement a remediation plan for the river that has been developed by Grassy Narrows and their science advisors on a strict timeline for action."

After fifty years of lobbying, the $85 million "comprehensive remediation action plan" will also involve finding all contaminated sites that could be leaking mercury into the river.

When Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray made the announcement, he said, "I have never seen a case of such gross neglect. I am embarrassed as a Canadian that this ever happened and I can't understand how people for fifty years sat in that environment office knowing this was going on as a minister and simply didn't do anything about it."  

The suffering in Grassy Narrows has been multi-generational, as children and elders alike suffer from a range of debilitating effects of poisoned water such as loss of vision, imbalance and trembling associated with Minamata Disease.

The Anishinaabe experienced mercury poisoning from the Dryden Chemical Company, a chloralkali processing plant in the pulp and paper industry, located in Dryden, Ontario, as well as the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company. Both ceased to operate in 1976, after twenty-four years.

Grassy Narrows First Nation received a settlement in 1985 from the Canadian government and the Reed Paper Company that bought out the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company and its sister-company Dryden Chemical Company, but the mercury was never actually removed from the environment.

Now, hopefully the healing of the river, the land, and the people of Grassy Narrows can begin. rabble.ca has been covering the issues at Grassy Narrows and will continue to cover this story as the clean up begins.

Image: Flickr/leadnow

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