How a mercury spill in Canada inspired a movement
Seventy kilometers north of Kenora, in Ontario’s Lake of the Woods region, among a series of rolling, densely forested hills between two lakes, is the Ojibway community of Grassy Narrows, or the Asubpeechoseewagong First Nation. It is home to about 1,000 people.
As you travel north towards it, the lakes and rivers are crowded with pleasure craft, tourists and sportsmen. The closer you get, however, the sparser the pleasure-seekers get – until eventually you find a Chernobyl stillness heavy among the trees.
Nobody wants to touch the waters around Grassy Narrows.
Between 1962 and 1970, the Reed Paper company dumped more than 9,000kg of mercury into the Wabigoon and English river systems here. Slowly, that mercury poisoned the waters, and made the walleye – the cornerstone of the local fishing-based economy and the staple food of the local First Nations people – unsafe to eat.
On 6 April 1970, shortly after detecting the spill, by then nearly a decade old, the Ontario provincial government closed the region’s fisheries and moved to cut off the source of mercury.
That date, 6 April, serves as a dividing line for the few surviving elders of Grassy Narrows today: a line between a growing, employed and prosperous traditional community, and an era of disease, government inaction, and Ojibway resistance.
Shoon Keewatin, a former trapper, recalls that former life vividly. “All the families in the community would be fishing,” he said. “Every household went fishing. They sold their fish to the Kenora market.”
“It was a good life,” says Steven Fobister, one-time chief of Grassy Narrows. Fobister now uses a motorised wheelchair. As he speaks, all the symptoms of advanced mercury-induced disease are evident: the slurred speech, the twisted and cramped arms, the twitch and part paralysis of his face. He struggles to hear my questions, as I struggle to understand his pained answers:
“In our bodies, in our minds, we’re always going to be gathering off the land.”
The extent of the mercury spill is hard to fathom now. Over 250km of waterways were contaminated by Reed Paper’s chemical dumping. Just 1g of mercury would render all the fish in a 20-hectare (49.4-acre) lake unsafe to eat.
The Grassy Narrows spill was 9m times bigger.
“As soon as they discovered the mercury, they said the fish was too contaminated,” Keewatin says. “It stopped everything.”
The word inaction isn’t a political phrase or hyperbole – it was the policy of the government towards the spill. A few months after closing the fisheries, on 13 August 1970, the Ontario minister of the environment, George Kerr, declared that the Wabigoon river would recover on its own, without a cleanup or intervention. He said it would happen naturally in 12 weeks.
Decades later, in a 2010 eulogy for Kerr, the MP Norman W Sterling said Kerr simply made up the 12-week number, and quoted him as saying: “If I had said it was going to be flushed out in one or two years, they would never have believed me.” The anecdote was met with laughter in the Ontario parliament.
The consequences for Grassy Narrows, however, were devastating. Those who suffered most were the First Nations members who followed traditional hunting lifestyles or worked as tour guides. Many developed Minamata disease, a neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning. Its effects are similar to the motor-neurone disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and include numbness in the limbs, difficulty walking, slurred speech, impaired hearing and in some cases paralysis and death.
Life on Grassy Narrows began to fall apart. Within five years of the closure of the fishery, unemployment in Grassy Narrows rose from 5% to over 90% (it rests near 40% today). The welfare rolls increased from $9,000 to $140,000. Drinking and violence – partly caused by despair, partly thought to be a side-effect of mercury poisoning – overwhelmed the reserve, and spread into nearby towns like Kenora, a city of 15,000 that developed one of the highest violent crime rates in the country.
The government did not deal with the social or health repercussions. Instead, it made a few token economic gestures: it distributed non-contaminated fish to Grassy Narrows residents, gave out $63,302 in forgivable loans to fishers and subsidised non-Native-owned tourist lodges to help them hire people from Grassy Narrows.
Little was done to help those who had fallen sick due to mercury contamination.
Nothing was done to clean up the river.