Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.
THE LONG, sad tale of mercury poisoning among people at two First Nations on the English-Wabigoon River system continued this week with a demonstration at the home of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Ironically, Wynne was canoeing on a river somewhere in Ontario but protesters say they still intend to remind her that she’s promised to address their concerns.
Ontarians who remember the issue when it arose more than 40 years ago may wonder why it remains an issue, given that two, small communities received more than $20 million in compensation. The answer may lie in interpretation of the details of the settlement. It is also apparent that the amounts distributed to victims of mercury poisoning are small compared with those awarded victims of the world’s first identified cases.
The Northwest issue arose back in 1970 when federal officials notified commercial fishermen and tourist lodge owners that the two rivers were contaminated with methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury that renders fish unsafe to eat. The contamination was traced to the former Reed paper mill in Dryden which had dumped more than 20,000 pounds of untreated mercury wastewater into the Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970. It drifted 250 kilometres downstream.
A tourist lodge was forced out of business. Commercial fishers at Grassy Narrows and Whitedog and those who had been employed as sport fishing guides were forced onto welfare. Native communities that had been thriving relative to many others suddenly faced severe hardships. Then came the symptoms: sensory disturbances on the limbs, difficulty walking a straight line, difficulty seeing, visual disturbances, hearing impairment, headaches, insomnia, exhaustion, fatigue and numbness in the limbs.
Health experts in Japan heard about this development and came to investigate. They had already dealt with a similar situation in 1961 in the city that gave its name to the disease — Minamata.
There, mercury poisoning victims received $800,000 as compensation in 1973 and continue to receive $2,000 to $8,000 per month, based on the severity of symptoms.
Here in the Northwest, the overall compensation was much higher but payments to victims who can prove poisoning get roughly one-tenth the monthly amounts — from $250 to $800 per month.
Compensation came from the Ontario and federal governments for claims by both communities for loss of jobs and way of life. In 1982, Canada contributed $2.2 million to Whitedog, by then called Wabaseemoong, for economic development, social and educational programs. Wabaseemoong also signed a settlement with Ontario in 1983 and in 1985 with Reed and its successor, Great Lakes Forest Products. The communities also received compensation from Ontario Hydro for earlier flooding of former reserve lands. In 1984, Canada contributed $4.4 million to Grassy Narrows for economic development and social service development and planning.
In 1985, legislation created settlement acts and the Mercury Disability Fund. The federal and provincial governments, as well as the two companies involved, paid a total of $16.67 million in compensation. Of that, $2 million was placed in a trust fund which, according to one report, the Province of Ontario is responsible for replenishing when the balance drops below $100,000. The Mercury Disability Board, based in Kenora, administers the trust and a benefits mechanism. Conditions on its use and bureaucratic requirements by band councils are said to restrict benefits, though both communities have members on the board with provincial and federal representatives.
The demonstration at Wynne’s Toronto-area home was meant to draw attention to the fact that Minamata disease continues to affect descendants of its original victims and the fact that mercury is said to remain present in the riverbed. At one point early on, governments were flying fresh, clean fish into the reserves and even provided freezers in which to store it. That is no way to preserve a local civilization that developed around fishing. Dredging should have been the order of the day. Still, the many millions that were paid to these two small communities should have been enough to sustain them economically and see to treatments. Perhaps the conditions of the disability fund need review.
We need to revisit this issue to ensure justice was done not only in 1970 but justice for the years to come as well.