UN-appointed investigator visits mercury-polluted Grassy Narrows First Nation

Maria Swain said she involuntarily shakes and feels numbness in her face.

The 58-year-old suspects the mercury that has poisoned her community for decades is to blame.

She believes mercury also contributed to her granddaughter Robyn Fiddler’s suicide two years ago. The girl, only 11 years old when she died, was born with an underdeveloped brain and later developed seizures, Swain said.

“The majority of my whole family was hunters, fishers, trappers because that was our way of life. When the mercury came in, people were told to quit all fishing activities and more or less our people were forced out of the river system. And I don’t think we’ve even grieved that loss yet.”

Swain told her story to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics, Baskut Tuncak. He visited Grassy Narrows First Nation on Saturday to hear from the people who live downstream from where, decades ago, a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 10 tonnes of the neurotoxin into the river.

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.

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The old mercury, which was used in a process to bleach paper, is still in the ground, river and fish.

Tuncak stopped in Grassy Narrows as part of an eight-stop tour of Canada to assess the country’s record on hazardous substances that impact vulnerable communities. He is also visiting Sarnia, Fort McMurray, Montreal, Vancouver and other major cities with a focus on the mining, chemical and oil and gas industries, as well as auto emissions.

“I am keen to examine Canada’s progress and current challenges to the protection of the human rights to life, to health, and bodily integrity, particularly with regard to children, Indigenous peoples, workers, low-income communities and migrants, in relation to toxic exposures,” said Tuncak in a press release before his trip to the community northwest of Dryden.

On the reserve, in a community centre called Minnowsaywin, six members of Grassy Narrows First Nation, including Swain, talked about the impact of mercury on their families.

Bill Fobister, a former chief of Grassy Narrows and one of those who spoke Saturday, said he welcomed Tuncak’s visit. That is because 50 years after Reed Paper dumped the mercury, the pollution is ongoing and still needs attention.

“Our moose and deer are disappearing,” said Fobister who was a “camp boy” and hunting and fishing guide, taking tourists on daytrips to catch walleye, before he was chief in the 1990s. “Now we have to fall back to the grocery store, which is not quite our diet.”

Fobister’s sense of taste has diminished and the tunnel vision he has suffered from for years is worsening. A partial numbness has spread from his lips to his cheeks. He gets a monthly payment from the Mercury Disability Board.

Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International said officials in Canada should take note of the special rapporteur’s visit.

“You certainly don’t need to be an international human rights expert to recognize the profound injustice facing the people of Grassy Narrows,” said Benjamin, who is Amnesty’s campaigner for Indigenous rights and was in Grassy Narrows Saturday. “However, the fact that such an expert has taken an interest in the mercury crisis and has gone out of his way to visit the community in person, does send an important message to Ottawa and the province.”

The provincial government has committed $85 million to help clean up the river. The federal government has pledged to help build a mercury care home that will help some of the sickest residents.

While the United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics, Baskut Tuncak, was visiting Grassy Narrows First Nation Saturday, Maria Swain talked about how her family has been impacted by the mercury poisoning of her community.

To date, the province has put the money in a dedicated trust and through it has funded pre-remediation studies of the river. The care home is estimated to cost $17 million to build and $70 million to operate for 30 years, according to a community source. Ottawa has so far spent $170,000 on a feasibility study that was completed last fall.

Community leaders are getting restless, concerned the promised facility will not be built. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Indigenous services minister Seamus O’Regan is expected to visit this week.

While the governments are paying more attention, community members are still sick and feel they are not getting the support they need.

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 recent research led by a leading mercury expert. Those kids were compared to Grassy Narrows children whose mothers hardly ever ate fish.

That research is part of an ongoing, comprehensive study that has also revealed the adults of Grassy Narrows report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts compared to other First Nations adults.

Another long-standing problem in the community has been the Mercury Disability Board, set up in the mid 1980s to compensate those who can demonstrate symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning. The board has long been criticized as being inadequate. The criteria for payments are too restrictive and the amounts too low, they have said. Swain said she applied for benefits and the board denied her claim due to a lack of medical evidence.

Baskut Tuncak, appointed Special Rapporteur on toxics by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2014.

The provincial government recently participated in a sweeping review of the board and then retroactively indexed payments to inflation.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, the Star and scientists have revealed that fish 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.

Special rapporteurs such as Tuncak form a large group of independent experts who investigate and monitor situations specific to a country and issues affecting human rights in all parts of the world and then report back to the United Nations. They are not UN staff.

Tuncak, a human rights expert, will hold a June 6 press conference to share his observations and he will submit a full report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September.

David Bruser is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidBruser

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