Though it has been 50 years since a mill dumped mercury upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation, the reserve’s children are showing troubling signs that the neurotoxin is still poisoning the community.
Children whose mothers ate fish at least once a week while pregnant are four times more likely to have a learning disability or nervous system disorder that is slowing their efforts in school, says new research led by a leading mercury expert. Those kids were compared to Grassy Narrows children whose mothers hardly ever ate fish.
Dr. Donna Mergler and a team of scientists surveyed the families of 350 children ages 4 to 17. The research is part of an ongoing, comprehensive study that has already revealed the adults of Grassy Narrows report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts compared to other First Nations adults.
During the 1960s, the Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River that feeds Grassy Narrows downstream. The mill was using the mercury to bleach paper. The mercury contaminated the walleye downstream and poisoned the people who ate the fish. They developed tremors, slurred speech, impaired hearing and tunnel vision, and lost muscle co-ordination.
The robust fishing tourism industry, especially at famous Ball Lake Lodge, was decimated. The commercial fishermen and guides went on welfare.
Over the past two years, the Star and scientists have revealed that fish downstream near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province, that there is mercury-contaminated soil and river sediment at or near the site of the old mill, and the provincial government knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under that site and never told anyone in Grassy Narrows or nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations. Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and is polluting the river.
Parents or caregivers responded to the lengthy survey about their kids between December 2016 and March 2017.
The effort was spearheaded by community leaders and Mergler, a mercury expert at Université du Québec à Montréal. It was funded by Health Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care.
The adult survey was supported by records of mercury levels in hair, blood and umbilical cord blood. Those same adults answered questions about their children for this survey.
It shows that Grassy Narrows children age four to 11 have a higher reported rate of ear infections, speech problems and learning disabilities compared to that reported by parents of other First Nations children. Grassy teens are struggling in school, with shorter attention spans than other First Nations teens, the research found.
This comparison is possible because the adult and children surveys were adapted from an older 2008 and 2010 survey that had been given to 12,000 people in First Nations communities across Canada.
Mergler has told the Star that the Grassy Narrows surveys were significant because “it’s the first time that there has been a population-based study of the community that links fish consumption to health outcomes and that looks at the difference between Grassy Narrows and other First Nation communities.
“Grassy Narrows, of course, has all the other issues of the other First Nations, such as residential schools, poverty, poor access to health care, poor access to food and, in addition to that, they have the legacy of mercury poisoning.”
She has said that the survey shows the river must be remediated to protect future generations and that the community needs bolstered health care and education resources.
A report on the survey’s findings recommended that a learning centre be set up to give information on mercury’s impact on a developing fetus and child. It also called for more supports for children, including a full-time child psychologist and speech therapy programs, as well as a community kitchen that serves uncontaminated food. Finally, the report urged officials to revisit the current guidelines on walleye consumption as damage could be occurring at levels lower than previously believed.
Indigenous Services Canada said it welcomes the new survey and will carefully review the results. A spokesperson also said the government “acknowledges that the best health outcomes for Indigenous peoples will be achieved through programs, supports and the identification of required infrastructure that are designed, developed and led by Indigenous communities.”
The research also found:
- At least 10 per cent of all Grassy Narrows teens have anxiety or depression.
- The children of mothers who ate fish at least once a month during pregnancy are twice as likely to have visual problems and three times more likely to have chronic ear infections, compared to children of Grassy Narrows mothers who hardly or never ate fish during pregnancy.
- Two-thirds of children and youth eat bannock and walleye, traditional foods, with half eating walleye at least a few times during the past year.
- 92 per cent of the children whose pregnant mothers ate fish at least once a week had a grandfather who was a fishing guide.
- The likelihood of these grandchildren of fishing guides having been in the care of child and family services is five times greater than those whose grandfather was not a fishing guide.
“The tradition and culture of fishing and fish consumption have been passed down from one generation to the next,” the report said. “However, since the 1970s, so, too, has the loss of the traditional economy, unemployment and sickness. Fishing guides and their familes were the most highly exposed to mercury and the first to lose their jobs.
“The legacy of mercury compounds and exacerbates the legacies of colonialism and residential schools on the health and wellbeing of the next generation.”
Last year, the provincial government committed $85 million to clean up the river and the federal government has pledged to help build a mercury care home that will help some of the sickest residents. The clean-up work has not yet begun, though experts are conducting research to determine how to best remediate the river.
And this year the province retroactively indexed payments from the Mercury Disability Board to inflation. The board, which was set up during the 1980s to compensate those who can demonstrate symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning, had long been criticized as being inadequate. Roughly 70 per cent of applicants had been turned down for compensation. Earlier this year, the board’s longtime neurologist quit after an allegation of bias. The doctor said he had done no wrong and wanted an apology, and when he did not get one, he said, he quit.
“We are proud of our kids. They amaze me every day with their humour, their pride, and their strength,” said Judy Da Silva, a Grassy Narrows mother and community activist. “They should not have to fight again and again for basic justice that others in Canada take for granted. They should not have to overcome hunger, poverty, and poison in order to succeed.”
The new research also found signs that the children of Grassy Narrows are active despite their significant challenges.
More than two-thirds of all children and youth participate in community-organized cultural events, and 88 per cent of children swim, jog or mountain bike.
Many of the teens of Grassy Narrows have participated in logging blockades and marches to protest governmment inaction on the mercury contamination. Their song “Home to me” has more than a quarter-million views on youtube, the website says.
“Our youth are brave and talented people who have overcome great obstacles to leave their mark on Canada,” said Chief Rudy Turtle. “But every day they face the legacies of mercury, colonialism, and residential schools, so it is an uphill battle for them. They deserve to have a good life and to enjoy themselves like other youth do, without having to fight again and again for basic fairness.
David Bruser is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidBruser
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