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      Grassy Narrows Injustice against Indigenous People in Canada

      By Tamara Hansen

      Protester: “Prime Minister Trudeau, people of Grassy Narrows are suffering from mercury poisoning. You committed to addressing this crisis, when will you keep them?”

      PM Trudeau [addressing the protester as they are carried out by security]: “Thank you for being here, thank you for your donation tonight. I really appreciate it.”

      The above exchange took place at a posh Liberal Party fundraiser hosted by the Laurier Club on March 27, 2019. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was speaking to a room of guests, which according to Global News, “are considered high-end Liberal donors who must contribute a minimum of $1,500 in order to join the ranks.”

      Wealthy event attendees applauded and laughed at Trudeau’s cruel, mocking, and inhuman response to the protesters, many themselves suffering from mercury poisoning. The interaction was caught on video and Trudeau’s remarks, as well as audience laughter, received a firestorm of condemnation. Trudeau was forced to apologize the next morning, he admitted that his response was “smug” and “lacked respect”. However, the mainstream media in Canada did not use the opportunity to educate people across Canada on what is really happening in Grassy Narrows, instead, they focused on the personality of Trudeau and whether Indigenous leaders would accept his apology.

      The media has failed to properly highlight why members of Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemoong, and Wabauskang First Nations travelled 1,700 kilometres to Toronto to protest Prime Minister Trudeau and why they paid thousands of dollars to make sure a group of activists could disrupt this event.

      Over 5 decades of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows

      According to the activist & community website FreeGrassy.net, “In the 1970’s it was revealed that fish caught by the local fisheries contained dangerous levels of mercury. It was discovered that the source of the mercury was the Dryden paper mill upstream – then owned by Reed Paper.” This made the fish, an essential food of the community, inedible for many years and forced the closure of the thriving commercial fishery, which devastated the local economy. The website further explains, “Overnight employment rates in the community went from 90% to 10%. The community was left to deal with the loss of their traditional economy, unemployment and a mysterious new ailment that was rampant among members of their community – mercury poisoning.”

      In September 2017, CBC News made a 20-minute radio documentary titled, “Children of the Poisoned River” about the youth of Grassy Narrows. Reporter Jody Porter explains, “Mercury “bioaccumulates,” meaning it passes from one generation to the next, from mother to child, through the placenta. Three generations after the contamination were discovered, teens in Grassy Narrows have seen their elders die and their parents stumble under the burden.”

      Mercury is a neurotoxin. The CBC documentary further explains, “The disability board was established in 1986 as part of a court settlement with Ontario and Canada and the two paper companies involved in the contamination. Neither the companies, the governments nor the disability board has ever admitted that anyone at Grassy Narrows has been poisoned — only that some people experience symptoms of Minamata disease.” Minamata disease is also known as methyl mercury poisoning.

      A November 2017 article by the Toronto Star Newspaper titled, “Ontario knew about Grassy Narrows mercury site for decades, but kept it secret” explains, “Japanese scientist Dr. Masazumi Harada spent the majority of his career examining the symptoms of [Minamata] disease. Harada continued his work in Canada and first tested community members of Grassy Narrows in 1975. He found people with mercury levels more than three times the Health Canada limit in Grassy Narrows and seven times the limit in nearby Whitedog. When Harada returned in 2004, all of the people who had tested over the limit were dead.” The article continues, “Harada’s 2011 study found 74 percent of people diagnosed by his team as impacted or possibly impacted by mercury were not receiving any form of compensation.”

      In interviews with the Toronto Star Newspaper in May 2018, Grassy Narrows residents outline a long list of issues they are facing: uncontrollable shaking, tingling legs and feet, dizziness, seizures, and numbness - the lack of sensitivity means people drop things or cannot feel the touch of others. Some have hearing and vision loss, as well as psychological issues and learning disabilities associated with mercury poisoning. The Minamata disease has also been blamed directly for many untimely deaths in the community.

      For the past 5 decades, the people of Grassy Narrows have been dealing with the consequences of mercury poisoning. In December 2018 a new report, “The Legacy of Mercury Exposure in Grassy Narrows First Nation,” was jointly published by Dr. Donna Mergler, a Biologist at Université du Québec à Montreal, and Judy Da Silva, a member of the Grassy Narrows First Nation. In an interview with Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) following the release of the report Dr. Mergler, along with Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle, explain the direct link between fish consumption during pregnancy and prenatal mercury exposure. They found that the more fish the mother ate, the more significant challenges and problems the doctor saw in her children.

      When the interviewer asks Chief Turtle why community members continue to eat the fish, he explains, “First of all, our people are poor. The income level is one of the lowest levels in Canada. There are very few jobs in the community, so that is one of the reasons they have to eat fish because it’s part of their diet to sustain themselves. In addition, it is something that has been a part of their lives for centuries.”

      Dr. Mergler adds, “The fish consumption levels, at which we began to see effects are under the Canadian guidelines for Walleye [fish] from that region, so we are not talking about the high levels of mercury exposure that we saw in the 70s. These are much lower levels and these levels are still having effects.”

      Over 5 decades of intergenerational mercury poisonings and yet minimal supports have been set up for the community and those who are suffering. First, there is no hospital or treatment centre in Grassy Narrows. Second, the government has yet to clean up all the mercury found in the area or even finalize a plan for digging it up and disposing of it. Third, there is a need for educational specialists and special resources for children and youth affected by mercury poisoning. None of these needs are being addressed, although many government promises have been made.

      The government of Canada’s inaction is killing the people of Grassy Narrows

      In an article for the Toronto Star Newspaper, Karen Wendling points out the blatant double-standard in Canada’s care and attention to nonIndigenous versus Indigenous health and safety. She writes, “I first heard about Grassy Narrows when I moved to Canada in 1979. It astonished me then that nothing had been done in over a decade. It appalls me now, especially when I compare it to the international attention and immediate action that occurred when E. coli killed six people in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000.”

      On the record in April 2010, then Health Minister Leonna Aglucaq told Parliament that they “reviewed” Grassy Narrows mercury levels and determined the fish to be “Safe”.

      In February 2016, the Ontario Environment Ministry again said on record that the river was basically cleaning itself over time.

      The community has been assured by various levels of government that the fish is safe to eat, while many peoples’ lived experiences demonstrate the opposite. It is only in the last two years that journalists from the Toronto Star Newspaper and the report issued by Dr. Mergler have backed up community claims and forced the government to make new promises to the people to Grassy Narrows.

      In 2017, for example, the Toronto Star uncovered provincial government reports from the 1990s revealing that they knew there was still mercury in the soil and did not inform the people of Grassy Narrows. The journalists also did on the ground testing and reported on possible sites of ongoing mercury leakage into the river. The provincial government responded to the media coverage promising $85 million towards clean up, and Ontario’s provincial Environment Minister, Rod Phillips promised to send dig plans over a year ago to Chief Turtle, but they have yet to materialize.

      On November 27, 2017, thenIndigenous Services Minister, Dr. Jane Philpott, promised the federal government would build a specialized mercury poisoning treatment facility in Grassy Narrows. The “Mercury Home” is an important community demand so that those suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning can receive treatment in their community, rather than paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to travel back and forth to the closest hospitals in Kenora, Winnipeg or Thunder Bay.

      The protest held at Trudeau’s Liberal Party fundraiser on March 27, 2019, happened to fall almost exactly 500 days after Philpott’s promise of a Mercury home for Grassy Narrows. The group gathered to protest the fact that after 500 days the money has yet to arrive and they have not yet broken ground towards building the facility.

      Injustices against Indigenous people are systemic in colonial Canada

      While we must challenge the governments of Canada and Ontario to do more for Grassy Narrows First Nation, the injustices committed against this community, while sickening, are not an isolated incident in Canada.

      Many comparisons between the standards of living on First Nations reserves in Canada and the so-called “third world” countries can be made. For example, many Indigenous communities in Canada are currently under boil water advisories, which means the water is not safe to drink out of the tap. A Metro Newspaper article from June 2017 explains, “As Canada spends a half-billion dollars celebrating its 150th year since confederation, it appears more than 150 drinking water advisories still exist, most of them in First Nations communities.”

      In all significant health indicators: infant mortality, maternal mortality, and life expectancy – Indigenous people in Canada are more at risk than nonIndigenous people in Canada. Every statistic shows that Canada’s healthcare system is not providing equal care for all. According to Statistics Canada at birth, I was expected to live 10 years longer than a baby girl born to an Inuit mother, simply because I was born a baby girl to a white mother.

      If clean drinking water and healthcare are not convincing enough to demonstrate that Canada has a systemic problem, look to the youth suicide epidemic on reserves across Canada; look to the low employment numbers for people living on reserves; look to the high incarceration rates of Indigenous people; look to the over 1,200 murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls across Canada; or look to the consistent Indigenous protests demanding their rights.

      When all statistics, reports, and research demonstrate that we have fundamental inequality in our country between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, we cannot afford to see the mercury poisonings in Grassy Narrows as an anomaly. While it is government inaction, it is also much deeper. It is a whole system that feels it owes nothing to Indigenous people, and indeed that Indigenous people are in the way of its monstrous capitalistic “progress”.

      Justice for Grassy Narrows!

      On social media the demands of the Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemoong, and Wabauskang First Nations are clear. They want what all people in Canada want and deserve. First, they want their community cleaned up, either by the government or the corporations which allowed them to be polluted. Second, they want adequate, free, and universal healthcare delivered in their own community. Third, they want compensation for those who have been poisoned and continue to be poisoned by government cruelty and inaction. Every single person living in Canada knows that they would want and demand the same things for their families. These are not radical demands; these are just what people in Canada expect on a daily basis and what the government of Canada has already promised.

      In “The Legacy of Mercury Exposure in Grassy Narrows First Nation” report there are further recommendations. These include the three demands of the community, but also: increased funding for healthcare (both physical and mental health programs); building the “Mercury Home” as a communitybased long-term care facility for those who have been poisoned; remediation or cleaning up the river; as well as support and resources towards increased food security and special education. Each of these recommendations needs to be funded and built immediately by the governments of Canada and Ontario.

      As both Indigenous and non-Indigenous poor and working people, we have a responsibility to listen, to what Indigenous communities are demanding. It is only when Indigenous people have control over their own lands, resources, and communities that they will be able to start recovering and rebuilding after decades and centuries of unjust laws and policies. It is up to Indigenous and nonIndigenous people to stand together to demand the government of Canada respect Indigenous people and their right to determine their own future, their right of self-determination.

      Follow Tamara on Twitter: @THans01
      Follow Grassy Narrows campaign on Twitter: @FreeGrass

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