The other day I was reading a scientist's report on Grassy Narrows that detailed the effects of the 9,000 kilograms of untreated mercury waste that was dumped into the Wabigoon River from in the 1960s by a local pulp and paper mill. The report gave me pause because it's divided into sections on community health and the environment.
In Toronto, these distinctions would likely stand. The lake that laps against the city's southern edge could be filled with toxic chemicals and many of us would only notice the red flags that stopped us from swimming on beach days. We'd continue to march into grocery stores and restaurants and buy food from all over the world (rarely from our local region).
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In Grassy Narrows, there's no such separation between people and the environment. Many community members rely directly on the surrounding forests and waterways for sustenance. So when the lakes within their traditional territories were poisoned, they were, too.
I saw first-hand the devastating effects of mercury poisoning when doctors from Minimata, Japan came to study Grassy Narrows residents last year. Although many are suffering, only a small fraction receive compensation (very little) from the federal Mercury Disability Board. The Japanese specialists have recognized more mercury poisonings and have invested decades in studying Grassy Narrows residents' medical conditions — far more than our own government!
The current approach of just hoping the mercury problem will go away is not working but remediation is possible, says a report released this week. This isn't groundbreaking news. A 1984 report observed that without remediation the river would likely remain contaminated for many decades. No actions were taken, and the river remains highly contaminated.
Imagine knowing you had something toxic in your body that harmed not only you but all your future offspring, and that surgery could remove it but government doesn't think you're a high enough priority.
This metaphor is grossly out of scale — because not only are community members suffering, so are their families, friends and neighbours. Fishing is not just a matter of diet, but was and is a way of life, from which self-respect, meaning and community engagement are derived. Compounding this is the fact that hunting and fishing were promised as rights in friendship treaties signed by ancestors.
Why is this happening? Governments often operate in silos — federal and provincial governments look to each other when funding is required, and there is often little (to no) co-ordination between government agencies; one ministry oversees health while another is responsible for working with Indigenous communities and yet another has the ability to grant logging licences in the forests within Grassy Narrow's traditional territory, threatening to release even more mercury into the watershed.
I'm struck by the strength of Grassy Narrows' community members, by their courage and resolve to seek environmental justice in a world so often deaf to their struggle.
The time has come to listen. Please call on our leaders — Ontario's premier and the prime minister — to take action by Standing with Grassy Narrows.