Vincent Lam, Miriam Toews and Margaret Atwood are celebrated Canadian authors participating in the David Suzuki Foundation's #standwithgrassy social media campaign.
The homepage of the Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek, or Grassy Narrows First Nation, asks: "How do we make a living from the earth without destroying it? How do we maintain a culture in a swiftly shifting world?" The answers to these questions will determine our country's collective future.
As writers in Canada, we are deeply concerned with our national story. For indigenous peoples, whose ancestors have lived here for millennia, Canada's story features marginalization, rights violations and loss of territory and livelihood. Sadly, mercury contamination of the English-Wabigoon watershed, the traditional lands of the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) First Nations, is part of this story.
Between 1962 and 1969, a pulp and paper mill released 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River in Northwestern Ontario. Dryden Chemicals Ltd. was producing bleach to whiten pulp for paper. The government of Ontario permitted this waste to be dumped. Mercury fouled rivers, lakes and fish. Today there is mercury in fish as far as 150 kilometres from the now infamous mill. Residents suffer Minamata disease symptoms, which include impaired vision, hearing, taste, touch, co-ordination and balance.
Mercury concentrates as it moves up the food chain through plants and animals. Much of the fish in the area – walleye and northern pike – are now unsafe to eat. Mercury pollution also poisoned an economy, a community and a way of life that was once intrinsically linked to the region's natural richness. Prior to this environmental disaster, the watershed boasted 90-per-cent employment from commercial fisheries, tourism and sport fishing. In 1970, commercial fishing was prohibited for health reasons. By 1973, 80 per cent of local residents were receiving public assistance.
In 1975, medical experts conducted studies indicating mercury poisoning and Minamata disease in Grassy Narrows and made their findings known to the Canadian government. Dr. Masazumi Harada wrote about an encounter with a local police officer, "He kept speaking to my confused face: 'Doesn't Minamata disease make people drink alcohol and become vicious?' "
In 1986, the corporate polluter, federal and provincial governments pooled funds to establish the Mercury Disability Board to compensate affected people. This has proved minimal. During a change in corporate ownership, the government released Dryden Chemicals and took responsibility for this tragic issue. It has not yet acted responsibly to remedy it.
In 2010 it was determined that 58.7 per cent of people studied from both the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog reservations had been affected by mercury, although only 15 per cent were receiving Mercury Disability Board compensation.
More recently, researchers concluded that 90 per cent of people studied in Grassy Narrows and Whitedog showed signs of mercury poisoning. The research speculates an ongoing source of mercury contamination. Chillingly, a former mill worker, Kas Glowaki, confessed to participating in the burial of 50 barrels of salt and liquid mercury behind the mill in 1972. If this is true, these may still be contaminating the area. Thus far, the government of Ontario has dismissed Glowaki's confession and has failed to locate this reported toxic mercury dump.
The story's only bright light: Expert reports say it's possible to remediate the site. The fish could be made safe to eat again. Members of Grassy Narrows have taken a leading advocacy role – presenting at the United Nations; lobbying government; and engaging in peaceful public protests. Premier Kathleen Wynne has stated, "There is no doubt in my mind that there are disabilities that have come about because of the pollution of the water." Yet there has been no provincial commitment to clean up the site. Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister Jr. has called upon the government to take action now and clean up the river.
The story of Canada must answer the Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek questions this way: Together, we will build prosperity while cherishing this land. Our cultures will meet in dialogue and mutual respect. What has been wounded, we will seek to heal. We will stand with Grassy.