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Justice for Grassy Narrows: Ontario must act now

    Justice for Grassy Narrows
    June 21, 2016

    The government of Ontario has demonstrated shocking indifference to the lives and well-being of the people of the Grassy Narrows First Nation who are suffering the devastating consequences of mercury dumped into their river system a half century ago. A story published this week in the Toronto Star revealed that the ongoing threat to Grassy Narrows may be even worse than previously known, and the province’s failure even greater.

    In the 1960s, the Ontario government allowed a Dryden pulp mill to release approximately 9 metric tonnes of mercury into the English and Wabigoon river system. According to the story published in the Star this week, a former mill employee mill has now alleges that after the province finally stopped the mercury dumping in 1971, an additional 50 barrels of salt and liquid mercury were illegally buried in a plastic lined pit where it could be leaching into the river.

    The mill worker made the allegations in a letter received by the Chief and Council of Grassy Narrows last August. When Grassy Narrows raised the issue with the province, the community was assured that there was no ongoing contamination of the river from the former mill site. According to the Star report, however, the province initially made no effort to locate the alleged dump site and has still not even done a simple water test to determine if mercury is leaching into the river at Dryden.

    Mercury contamination is a grave concern. Once released into the natural environment, mercury is transformed into methyl-mercury, a substance that accumulates in the flesh of fish, reaching greater and greater concentrations in the food chain. Methyl-mercury poisoning is known to cause degenerative neurological disorders, heart disease, and blindness, among other devastating symptoms. Children whose mothers were exposed to methyl-mercury may face developmental challenges for the rest of their lives.

    The mercury dumped into the river system in the 1960s struck two blows against the people of Grassy Narrows. Fish is a staple of life at Grassy Narrows and a foundation of their culture and economy. The contamination of the fish in the English and Wabigoon river system led to the closure of the commercial fishery in the early 1970s, just as the first debilitating cases of mercury poisoning were identified.

    The devastation has continued to this day. Studies carried out by scientists from Minamata, Japan – the site of the world’s infamous incident of mercury poisoning – have found that mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows is pervasive and ongoing, affecting the health and futures of the current generation of children.

    At stake are human rights guaranteed to all people including the right to health, the right to culture and the right to livelihood. Ontario needs to acknowledge the wrong, do everything in its power to set it right, and to make sure that it doesn’t occur again. This is the fundamental standard of justice. And the province has failed on all counts.

    Knowing that the people of Grassy Narrows have been exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in their environment, the province should have acted long ago to put in place an ongoing system to monitor community health and provide victims of mercury poisoning the specialized assistance needed. This has never happened.

    More than 30 years ago, a joint federal-provincial study concluded that it was possible to clean up the river system in a way that would significantly reduce the ongoing risks to the people of Grassy Narrows. The province did not act on the report.

    A new scientific study released last month concluded once again that a safe clean-up was possible. The report went further to note that mercury levels in the river have not declined in the last 30 years. The report’s authors said the continued high levels of mercury in the river may point to an ongoing source of contamination. Regardless of the source, the authors concluded that the continued high levels of contamination demonstrate that intervention is needed.

    The province’s initial response was to revert to the same, discrediting talking points it has relied on for years, claiming that there is no evidence that a clean-up was needed or even possible. The province has since backed down from this initial denial and acknowledged the need for remediation of the river. At this point, however, the province has made no specific commitments.

    Until the province finally takes concrete action to protect the health and well-being of the people of Grassy Narrows, the situation can only get worse. It’s been estimated that the mercury alleged to be buried in Dryden is enough to increase contamination of the river ten-fold above natural levels and prolong the contamination for almost a century. The province must act now to ensure that this legacy of injustice is not handed down to future generations.


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    For further information please contact:

    Jacob Kuehn, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada, 613-744-7667 ext. 236,
    Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada, 416-363-9933 ext. 332,