Hasn’t Grassy Narrows suffered enough? Residential-schooled, human rights denied, forcibly relocated, and then, in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, poisoned with mercury. Fish, fowl, animals — and people. And, as the late Warner Troyer explained back in 1975 in the CBC documentary below, there were cover-ups and casualties all the way through, as mercury levels rose to highly toxic levels in the rivers, fish, and First Nations inhabitants who lived on the fish.
Mercury poisoning is irreversible. In humans the symptoms include muscle weakness, a narrowed range of vision, loss of hearing, and slurred speech. It can progress to insanity, coma and death. The syndrome is called Minamata disease, after a city in Japan whose inhabitants were slowly poisoned by a corporate polluter for decades.
The Ontario government of the day got wind of the massive pollution of the Wabigoon River system by Dryden Chemicals Inc., which dumped 20,000 pounds of mercury into the waterways, and it stopped commercial fishing. But it resisted doing anything at all to help the First Nations people affected, and has never publicly accepted, despite the abundant scientific evidence, that the affected populations in Grassy Narrows and Whitedog reserves indeed had Minamata disease. Japanese scientists visited, bringing with them sufferers from from Japan — but the response by the Progressive Conservative government response was to mock them. Natural Resources Minister Leo Bernier called them “Japanese troubadours.” Yuk, yuk.
It took another ten years after Troyer’s documentary for the First Nations to win compensation. But the bands are still fighting against corporate pollution to this day, as well as continuing to suffer the lingering effects of mercury poisoning. The only scientists interested in their plight are Japanese. In official Canada, it’s all yesterday’s news.
Except that it is anything but. The Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne is happy to give these long-suffering people another dose of poison. And, unlike the Progressive Conservative government forty or so years ago, when Minamata disease was poorly understood, she cannot fall back upon the alibi of ignorance. By approving massive clearcutting by logging companies, which will release soil-bound mercury into the waterways once again, the Ontario Liberal government is condemning more First Nations people to sickness and quite possibly death. A request by the First Nations for an environmental assessment before logging begins has been brusquely refused: Wynne and her government know perfectly well what they’re doing.
It is impossible to miss the comparison here with the Harper government’s promotion of asbestos, despite its proven link to a particularly horrible cancer called mesothelioma. As long as Quebec was producing it, the federal government was happy to see it exported to the Third World, where countless lives would be shortened or lost as a result. The spectacle of Dr. Kellie Leitch, who has presumably sworn the Hippocratic oath (“Do no harm”), refusing to speak out against this outrage was stomach-churning. And Harper wheeled and dealed internationally to prevent this virulent cancer-causing substance from even being labelled as dangerous. Only when the government of Pauline Marois closed the mines did the pro-asbestos Conservatives (and Liberals too, by the way) stop their drive to sicken and murder Third World workers in the cause of profits and votes.
Because that’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? Back in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, it was tourism, especially sport fishing, in northern Ontario; now it’s logging, and for the feds (and Quebec mining companies) it was asbestos. What difference do the lives of Aboriginal people and brown Third World workers matter when there’s money to be made and votes to be bought?
A fairly recent Supreme Court decision set back the reserve inhabitants even further, exempting the federal government from responsibility for the health and lives of the people in Grassy Narrows. Clear-cutting logging companies may face further court challenges, but there is little cause at this point to be optimistic. Money talks. And because of that, it seems, our sorry history of genocide has not yet run its course.