It’s been half a century since a pulp and paper mill in Dryden, Ont. dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the English and Wabigoon river systems, poisoning aquatic life downstream along with two communities, including Grassy Narrows, who relied on fish to survive.
Since then, mercury victims have had to fight to even be acknowledged, for adequate disability money, to have the river system cleaned up, and to keep industry from moving into the territory to unleash more mercury, this time through logging.
“It’s been very slow, its been 50 years, and we keep protesting, and we keep asking and to try to improve things but it just doesn’t really get anywhere,” Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle told InFocus Host Melissa Ridgen.
Some 900 people live in Grassy Narrows and health official say 90 per cent have signs of mercury poisoning, which include vision and hearing impairment, tremors, and decreased cognitive function.
Yet Turtle says only five per cent meet guidelines to be disability compensation.
And no one has bothered to cleanup the river system, which still tests high for mercury.
Judy Da Silva, environmental health coordinator for Grassy, says the community needs action but keeps getting political lip-service.
She points out that two years ago, former Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott committed to building a mercury treatment centre in the community, much like was built by the Japanese government after residents of the village of Minamata were mercury poisoned, yet not a brick has been laid.
Turtle said Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan called him just before the show, to reaffirm that Ottawa will at some point, build the treatment centre.
And Ontario committed $85 million to follow the advice of scientists and cap off contaminated portions of the river system, but that too hasn’t been done.
Da Silva is one of those suffering the effects of mercury poisoning.
“I know I’m deteriorating, one symptom is being off balance, and that was happening to me, even an hour ago where my daughter had to help me stay balanced,” she said.
“The mercury attacks the brain, you can still be really intelligent but your body gives up on you.”
One thing that did happen was the Doug ford government last summer, announced those on disability will have their first cost-of-living raise since the 1980s.
It saw monthly payments double to between $500 and $1,700 for those who qualify.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insists his government wants to help but when a protester confronted him about his government’s inaction at $1,500 a plate, Liberal fundraising event in Toronto, his response was to thank the activist for her donation as she was being escorted out of the venue.
He later apologized telling reporters it was disrespectful
“We’re used to that kind of callous attitude to Indigenous people,” da Silva said. “We’ve been dealing with several different of governments throughout the years.
“Its taken this long and we’re still protesting and we’re still out there trying to get mercury justice for our people.”
Turtle said he was disappointed by Trudeau’s remarks.
“I feel insulted because our people are poisoned, people are suffering, and that’s just not a proper response coming from the prime minister of Canada,” Turtle said.
“We acknowledged his apology but until we see further action or get something done — like building the mercury treatment facility, and he comes to the community to see first hand, and takes serious actions — we would see his apology is sincere.”