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Grassy Narrows needs local treatment centre for mercury poisoning, chief says

Hundreds of people, many who travelled all the way from Grassy Narrows, and many other support groups marched through Toronto's downtown to the front lawn of Queen's Park on Wednesday to protest 40 years of mercury poisoning in their water.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Chief Simon Fobister doesn't have to imagine the grief and anguish and pain that decades of slow-motion mercury poisoning have wrought on the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation.

After all, he's one of them.

Fobister and a number of his family members are among the vast majority of Grassy Narrows First Nation residents — more than 90 per cent by some estimates — who must contend daily with the painful, debilitating symptoms of Grassy's toxic legacy.

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The symptoms of mercury poisoning, also known as Minimata disease, include impaired peripheral vision, muscle weakness, impaired speech, hearing and cognitive function and numbness or stinging pain in the extremities and mouth.

Fobister, whose hands and feet ache daily, knows something else about the symptoms: "They will never go away."

What do go away are the locals, who are often forced to seek treatment at facilities far from the remote northwestern Ontario community, a two-hour drive north of the city of Dryden.

"So many times, they just send them out to Kenora or Winnipeg, and we never see them again," Fobister said in an interview. "Families are poor here ... They don't have the means to see the family members."

The nearly 62-year-old chief is trying to convince the federal government to build a treatment centre in Grassy Narrows so residents can get the medical help they need closer to home. Fobister has spent time at a similar centre in Japan, the world authority on Minimata disease.

"I went through some of their specialized equipment," he recalled. "My God, I couldn't believe how much it eased the pain."

Japanese research has concluded more than 90 per cent of the people in Grassy Narrows and the nearby Wabaseemoong (White Dog) First Nation have symptoms of the disease, including a new generation of residents.

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Ottawa "has obligations" to address health needs on reserve, said Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, who spoke Friday with Fobister and leaders in Wabaseemoong about the situation.

Philpott said she will meet Nov. 29 in Toronto with community leaders and her Ontario counterpart David Zimmer to discuss the details of a feasibility study for a treatment centre.

"Specifics in terms of exactly who is paying what are to be addressed in the coming days," Philpott said.

"We will discuss some of the specifics then, but we certainly will be contributing to the cost of the feasibility study and then assessing ongoing ways to support in the development of such a home or a treatment centre."

The Ontario government reaffirmed in last week's fiscal update a plan to spend $85 million on cleaning up the site of a paper mill upstream from Grassy Narrows where mercury was first dumped in the Wabigoon River in the 1960s.

There is "openness" on the part of the federal Liberal government towards the idea of a treatment centre, Philpott added — something that's been recommended by international organizations that have monitored the situation in Grassy, including the group Human Rights Watch.

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In the meantime, Grassy's residents — including members of Fobister's own family — are just trying to survive.

Fobister's cousin Steve has been diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Himself a former Grassy Narrows chief, Steve Fobister staged a hunger strike in 2014 to press Ottawa into action. He has since become dependent on a feeding tube to survive, his family says.

His daughter, Sherry, has symptoms, too — as do her mother, her 18-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. Her four-year-old may be on the same trajectory, she fears.

"There's other families around in Grassy that are going (through) the exact same thing I'm going through," Sherry Fobister said in an interview. "Some of them are worse, they are grieving ... from losing a loved one."

There's another bitter twist to the prospect of seeking medical treatment off-reserve: the persistent discrimination that Grassy residents know all too well from explaining their symptoms to doctors outside the community.

"They will ask you if you sniff gas," she said. "Or they ask you if your mom drank ... or if your dad is a drunk ... or if they sniffed gas ... that's the first questions they ask."

To date, the community says its persistent pleas for federal help have been ignored, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to take steps to deal with the mercury contamination issue "once and for all."

"We have lived here all our lives," Fobister said. "You want to be with family. You don't want to be far from home and alone ... That's not right."

Video: Two ministers share Indigenous portfolio after Cabinet shuffle (The Canadian Press)
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