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Former Grassy Narrows Chief Endures Hunger Strike in Face of Ongoing Mercury Poisoning Tragedy

Former Chief of the Anishinaabe of Grassy Narrows, Steve Fobister Sr., is enduring a hunger strike to “call for justice for mercury survivors” suffering from the negative health effects of a mercury crisis that dates back to the early ‘60s. (Update: On July 30th, one day after publication of this article, Fobister announced he would end his hunger strike to continue his advocacy work for Grassy Narrows victims).

The Grassy Narrows First Nation said it has just obtained a copy of an unreleased government report that confirms there is “no doubt” community members near Kenora, Ontario have suffered from mercury-related neurological disorders. The band says this is something the government has never before acknowledged.

The Grassy Narrows mercury crisis, which first began 1962, occurred after a nearby paper mill poisoned the Wabigoon-English river system, contaminating local fish and communities. The Dryden Chemicals pulp and paper mill leaked an estimated 9000 kilograms of mercury in the river system between 1962 and 1970. By 1970 the community was forced to stop commercial and sport fishing due to high levels of mercury contamination although, at the time, the government of Ontario maintained the fish were safe for consumption.

Fobister, with a body crippled from mercury poisoning, met with Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer on Tuesday in Toronto, telling a news conference “the struggle goes on.”

“There are people that are in need right now – it’s not something that we are going to talk about forever,” Fobister said.

Concerns about the mercury crisis have reignited after allegations a report, commissioned by the Mercury Disability Board, was kept hidden from the Grassy Narrows First Nations.

The Mercury Disability Board was created in 1985 after the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations settled out of court with Ottawa, Queen’s Park and two paper companies, Reed Ltd. (owner of Dryden Chemicals) and Great Lakes Forest Products Ltd.

Members of the First Nations communities were concerned after the board, which includes federal and provincial members of government as well as First Nations representatives, failed to publicly release the health crisis report.

The report’s findings were also not brought to Grassy Narrows community members still suffering from mercury poisoning.

Board chair Margaret Wanlin said there was no intention of covering up the report and that the former chief received a briefing on the report. She also said a public meeting was held although the report was not published online.

“We aren’t intentionally trying to hide it,” she said.

Sarah Campbell, aboriginal affairs critic for the NDP, released a statement saying, “a coverup involving the poisoning of an entire community is not something you expect to hear about here in Ontario.”

“The government owes it to residents to release any information they have about the issue, and to take concrete steps to address ongoing health, nutrition and environmental issues stemming from the industrial waste.”

“The government has been sitting on this report since 2009,” Fobister said. And the board “continues to overlook the sick people of Grassy Narrows.”

Aboriginal Affairs minister Zimmer is calling for a review of the Mercury Disability Board “and all of its operations and responsibilities.”

“The time has come to do a review…and what its mandate should be, how it does its work, how it should look into issues, what should be the parameters of its decisions,” he said.

“It’s those kinds of issues that have recently come to our attention. Things have changed in 29 years, there are different technologies and different ways of managing the effects of mercury.”

Critics are calling for a public release of the report. And First Nations are calling on the government of Ontario to make compensation more readily available for victims.

Grassy Narrows member and community activist, Judy Da Silva, said band members have been denied compensation and subject to onerous paperwork, only to be turned away.

“Everyone should have gotten automatic compensation forever,” she said. “For us to go and beg for pennies is ridiculous.” 

Image Credit: Zach Ruiter @EnviroPunk via Twitter.

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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