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Ontario handling of Grassy Narrows is environmental racism

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Grassy Narrows Rally in Toronto, 2016. Image: Leadnow Canada/flickr

There are few stories of government betrayal of First Nations communities as shocking that of the Ontario government's treatment of the citizens of Grassy Narrows First Nation, who have been poisoned by mercury from the pulp and paper industry.

This case of environmental racism is absolutely mindblowing.

Three generations are affected by the mercury in their drinking water, exhibiting visible symptoms like tremors that wrack elders' bodies.

Now it turns out that the Ontario government had known for twenty years just how badly the land and water were contaminated by mercury spills from the Dryden Pulp Mill, but kept it a secret from those living along the Wabigoon River system.

The confidential government report commissioned in 2016 by mill owner Domtar, Inc. and prepared by an environmental consulting firm that the Ontario government hired reported that the water was toxic then, and likely still is.

Now, I know the distinct smell in the air around Thunder Bay when the pulp and paper mills belch and the emergency protocols when there has been a spill. In the 1990s, when someone from inside the nearby plants knew that there had been a spill, they would make an anonymous call to a community member and the phone tree would continue as the news was passed from house to house.

I remember spending a blissful day swimming in Boulevard Lake until someone guy in an pickup truck drove by and shouted that we had to get out of the water immediately because there had been a spill. All of us gathered together at my grandmother's sauna to sweat out whatever toxins we had absorbed. I can only imagine, just barely, what it must be like to always be forced to drink contaminated, toxic water.

And to know that the Ontario government kept the water system's contamination a secret from Grassy Narrows is intergenerational, environmental racism.

It turns out that the Grassy Narrows residents were told that Reed Paper had dumped ten tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River system between 1962 and 1970, but were told that the waterways would naturally clean themselves over time with no long-term effects.

Despite the fact that the mercury was actually visible in the soil to the naked eye.  

Mercury is a deadly neurotoxin. In Grassy Narrows, you can get sick from eating the food, burning the wood, and drinking the water from the Wabigoon River system, which has been poisoning people for years. Government official after government official knew about the contamination but worked in symphony to keep the news from the people it matters to most. The government even let the company responsible for the spill the leave the soil in place instead of investing in a clean up.

When Toronto hosts a River Run demonstration, the march is led by at least half a dozen wheelchairs and is kept short for the benefit of community members -- who fly down to meet government officials at Queen's Park and meet with their allies -- who just can't walk that far.

I remember one year Grassy Narrows hosted a fish fry at Queen's Park and while we ate the same fish that the people of Grassy Narrow's ate, Kathleen Wynne (then minister responsible for Indigenous affairs) did not show up. We knew that the fish was probably contaminated, but that is the wolf lesson of humility. You eat what they eat.

The effects of mercury are known to cause Minamata disease. The symptoms form a long list, including 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 now 2017 and Grassy Narrows is currently demanding a Mercury Home and Treatment Centre be opened in their community so that their sick loved ones can be treated with dignity close to their families. Ontario and Canada refuse to commit.

"This is sickening. It shows how lowly we are, the Anishinabeg, to the government and corporations. Like we are not worth it to be alive. They knew about this poison and they did nothing. They didn't even tell us. It is awful," said Judy Da Silva, a Grassy Narrows grandmother and strong advocate for her community.

While the Ontario government has committed $85 million to remove the poison from the river, no government agency -- provincial or federal -- has taken any new action to improve the lives of the people poisoned. That's three generations of people who can look to their elders' health to predict how they will be affected by the mercury and how their children will be affected by the toxins. 

Image: Leadnow Canada/flickr

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