On a sunny afternoon, the south lawn at Queen’s Park was transformed into an open-air restaurant. A long, narrow table with 11 place settings was covered with a white tablecloth. 

Invited guests included Premier McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, several Liberal cabinet ministers and Sarah Campbell, NDP Critic for Natural Resources and Aboriginal Affairs.

Grassy Narrows mothers had urged the Premier and his colleagues to join them and their families at noon for a traditional fish fry of their local fish cooked on an open wood fire.

The head waiter wore a white shirt with a black tie, black pants and a white apron around his waist.

The mood was festive. Traditional drumming. Children playing. 

But this was no celebration.

There was only one item on the menu. Fish. Mercury contaminated fish from the Wabigoon River in Grassy Narrows.

After the stacks of fish were cut into chunks, cleaned, dipped in an egg batter and covered with bread crumbs, they were placed in a large skillet where the butter sizzled as the fillets cooked over an open wood fire.

Between 1962 and 1970, a Dryden paper mill dumped 20,000 pounds of mercury into the Wabigoon River.

Still, the Grassy Narrows residents continued to eat the mercury contaminated fish. It’s what their people have lived on for thousands of years. 

And what they need to survive on today. Their meagre incomes force them to rely on the fish to feed their families. 

A once thriving commercial fishing industry that provided good jobs closed down decades ago, after the lakes and rivers were contaminated by industrial polluters.

“Every day mothers in Grassy Narrows must choose between hunger and feeding their families our traditional fish diet,” said Judy Da Silva, Grassy Narrows mother and activist.”

“We are asking that McGuinty step in our shoes for one meal, so he can understand why we say no to pollution and destructive industrial logging that brings even more mercury into our fish.”

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.

In 1975, Dr. Harada found mercury levels in some Grassy Narrows people were over 3 times the Health Canada limit and levels were 7 times the limit were found in White Dog. 

When he returned in 2004, he found 43 per cent of his original patients were dead.

A 2005 study by Dr. Harada found that Health Canada safety guidelines were too weak to protect people from the long term effects of low level mercury exposure.

Various self-reported symptoms from eating mercury contaminated fish include difficulty seeing, insomnia, exhaustion, visual disturbances, fatigue and numbness in the limbs.

Kathleen Wynne, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, greeted the six young people who trekked 2,000 kilometres, on foot, from north of Kenora to Toronto to raise awareness about the mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows.

“I think it’s wonderful that you guys have expressed yourselves in this way,” said Wynne. “This is a situation that I really am very concerned about.”

Wynne said her officials in the Ministry have set up a committee to work with the Grassy Narrows community to figure out what needs to be done next.

The Ministry of Natural Resources, Aboriginal Affairs and the Environment, she said, are all willing to sit down with Grassy Narrows.

Even though Wynne hasn’t been to Grassy Narrows, she promised to visit the community within the next few months.

“This never should have happened in the 60’s and 70’s,” said Wynne. “I don’t want anybody eating tainted fish.”

Judy Da Silva told Wynne that her name was on the dining table and asked her again to join the community for lunch.

“I don’t think that anybody should be eating tainted fish,” said Wynne. “But I’ll eat a little bit of fish if you want.”

Wynne reminded the media scrum that now surrounded her that the government had set up a Fish for Food program so residents wouldn’t have to eat contaminated fish. 

“Now I understand that the community hasn’t applied,” she said. “There hasn’t been an application for that program for some time.”

Wynne wants to know why that’s the case.

“If it’s that the fish doesn’t taste good because it’s frozen fish,” said Wynne, “well there’s lots of (fresh) fish in other parts of Ontario.”

Later in the afternoon, Sarah Campbell, NDP Critic for Natural Resources and Aboriginal Affairs, arrived at the fish fry and spoke at length with the Grassy Narrows people about their issues and demands for change. 

During question period in the morning, Campbell asked the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to immediately sit down with Grassy Narrows and Whitedog to listen to their concerns and address the mercury poisoning issue.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.