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West Moberly First Nations Chief, Roland Wilson, speaks about study results and a call for the B.C. government to reverse its decision to approve the controversial $9 billion Site C dam as he holds a mercury contaminated Bull trout during a news conference on the front lawn of the Legislative Assembly in Victoria, B.C. May 11, 2015. Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

From 1962 to 1970, Reed Paper's pulp and chemical mill at Dryden, Ont., near the Manitoba border, dumped its waste into the Wabigoon River and on into the English River and ultimately Hudson Bay. That effluent contained mercury – which was used for bleaching paper. By one estimate, 9,000 kilograms of methyl mercury were put into the river system.

So the mercury in turn found its way into the fish that were the major staple of the people of the remote Grassy Narrows and Whitedog reserves. Severe neurological and birth defects resulted. The nearest major hospital is in Winnipeg, a three-hour drive.

The mercury poisoning was recognized long ago, but the two First Nations understandably continued to eat their local fish and drink the water from their lakes and rivers.

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A similar horror was detected in Japan in the city of Minamata in 1956, and it was Japanese scientists who ascertained in 1975 that Grassy Narrows was suffering from a version now called Ontario Minamata disease.

The people of Grassy Narrows were financially compensated, with about $17-million, in 1985, but that's far from being the end of the story.

It has now emerged that the mercury levels in parts of the English-Wabigoon river system are actually rising, 45 years later. In some areas, the mercury content is twice the threshold for remediation. One approach, called "natural recovery," is evidently not enough. Natural recovery appears to mean doing very little or nothing and waiting for the ecosystem to cleanse itself – laissez-faire in a literal sense.

Older people in Grassy Narrows show most of the toxicity, but it's being found in children, too. The Ontario government and the Grassy Narrows First Nation recently commissioned a report, which made 40 recommendations – among them, that more research is needed. Health Canada studied the problem two decades ago.

It's hard to resist the conclusion that the government approach hitherto has been to pay money to the victims and hope that the mercury either is entrapped in stable sediment or just dissipates and goes away. As with many issues in the aboriginal file, the mere passage of time has not healed the wounds.

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