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Federal government agrees to fund treatment facility for Grassy Narrows

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After intense lobbying and a huge grassroots push for support--thanks in part in the River Run demonstrations in Toronto--the federal government has finally agreed to fund a treatment center for mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Chief Simon Fobister stated that he had been requesting this from the government for years and year and noted that this was, "a dream come true."

I’m sure Grassy Narrows suffers from Attawapiskat syndrome, where the amount of attention Ottawa gives to an Indigenous issue is directly related to how close the First Nation is to our country or province's seat of power.

That said, this is a major step forward for the community that suffers intergenerational health and social damage from the high amounts of mercury which was dumped in the water from the pulp and paper mills before they shut down.

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

Fish from the English-Wabigoon water system is still a major source of protein for community members despite the risks.

Fish caught and eaten contains has been tested and found to have roughly 150 times the safe daily dose of mercury.

Mercury poisoning causes Minamata Disease, characterized by devastating symptoms such as general muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision, and damage to hearing and speech. According to Wikipedia, in "extreme cases, insanity, paralysis, coma, and death follow...A congenital form of the disease can also affect fetuses in the womb."

The Dryden plant dumped approximately 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the river systems in the 1960s.

Building the health center right at the epicenter of the mercury poisoning event means that those who are ill won't have to travel outside their own community to Winnipeg, for example, to receive treatment helping the whole community stay united and heal.

This good news follows an earlier announcement by the Ontario government that it was committed to spending $85 million to clean up the site where the mercury was first dumped upstream from two small First Nations--Grassy Narrows and White Dog. 

"The people of Grassy Narrows have fought for more than 40 years to hear [this]," David Suzuki said after visiting Grassy Narrows. "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."

I’ve been following concern for a few years now and at one point, it seemed like Japan cared more about the community’s struggle with mercury poisoning than the Canadian government, as numerous Japanese nationals have made the trip to Grassy Narrows to study the mercury epidemic and try and offer solutions to the community.

It was a Japanese study released in 2016 that found that more than 90 per cent of Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations community members show signs of mercury poisoning.

The researchers also found troubling symptoms in children born recently even though the mercury was dumped in the water in the 1960s.

It seems that after years of lobbying and grassroots support the federal and provincial governments are finally committed to action.  

Fobister called the lack of government action to help the community "shameful."

Hopefully, the governments will follow through on their promise to clean up Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations for good.

While $85 million might seem like a large price tag to clean up two small communities, it is the right thing to do.

Canada signed on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2010.

The first of the UNDRIP's 46 articles declares that, "Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law." 

The Declaration goes on to guarantee the rights of Indigenous peoples to enjoy and practice their cultures their customs, their religions and their languages; to develop and strengthen their economies and their social and political institutions. Indigenous peoples have the right to be free from discrimination and the right to a nationality.

Image: Krystalline Kraus

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