Flowing in Circles: Mercury Cleanup in Grassy Narrows


Between 1962 and 1970, a Dryden pulp and paper mill dumped nearly 10 tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system, which runs through the Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows) First Nation and the Wabaseemoong (White Dog) Independent Nation. In response, the Ontario government took no action to remediate the mercury in the water, leading to the shut down of the local fishing industry and crippling the local economy. The government did not take any of the actions recommended by the scientists studying mercury levels in the area, who suggested that cleaning up the spill was both possible and advisable.

The effects of acute mercury poisoning on the human body are severe and often fatal. They range from the frightening, such as blurry vision, tremors, loss of strength and muscle coordination (in other words,  cerebellar ataxia) to the devastating: miscarriage, speech impairment, birth defects, and seizures. In short, a paper mill’s irresponsible dumping turned the English-Wabigoon River system into a neurotoxin delivery system in the 1960s, and the government’s response was to wait for “natural recovery” — in other words, for the problem to fix itself.

Unfortunately for the people living in Grassy Narrows, the problem did not fix itself. In fact, conditions in the area would not even be permitted to undergo natural recovery: industrial activities like clear-cut logging put the community at heightened risk of exposure by disturbing the mercury in the soil. All the while, the community had to fight in court beginning in 1977 before the government paid enough attention to even consider compensating the people affected. Even then, only 30 percent of eligible applicants were compensated through the slow and onerous process overseen by the Mercury Disability Board.

The community spent many years demanding that all clear-cut logging activities be stopped, writing to the companies involved and engaging in negotiations with the government, scoring few victories. Realizing  that acting within institutional channels was not enough, a group of Grassy Narrows youth organized a road blockade in 2002 to hinder logging companies from continuing operations without their community’s consent. This direct action was not only more successful in hindering logging activities, it also drew widespread media attention to the challenges facing the community.

Helpful NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch boosted awareness of the Grassy Narrows mercury poisoning problem, and local community members set up several high-profile marches on Queen’s Park, called River Runs. In May and June 2016, the fourth of these River Runs drew a $600,000 pledge from Premier Kathleen Wynne for renewed mercury testing and a new mercury working group.

Does this victory signal that the province is willing to take real action to clean up Grassy Narrows? Sadly, it looks like the jury is still out. The recent pledge for further study of the issue makes a lot less sense when one realizes that a similar study was commissioned as recently as 2014, with conclusions that mirror those presented in a 2010 literature review commissioned by the Mercury Disability Board as well as another study conducted in 1983.

On top of it all, the 2016 working-group-and-mercury-testing package is not even a new offer. The 2012 River Run elicited a very similar offer from then “Aboriginal” Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne, who at that time pledged to organize a committee to study the mercury issue. It’s as if the prospect of meaningful action to address the contamination frightens the province more than the word “neurotoxin” does. This is even more troubling given the fact that scientists have urged the government to address the possibility of an ongoing source of contamination responsible for keeping local mercury levels so high for so long.

During a question period last November, the Premier reassured the Ontario Legislature that despite “very extensive tests all across the site,” the people sent by the province could not find any source of ongoing contamination. After that, some volunteers from the NGO Earthroots took a weekend trip to Grassy Narrows and located a hotspot of mercury-contaminated soil in an area brought to the government’s attention last year by Kas Glowacki, an individual who admitted to burying barrels of mercury underground decades ago during a manual labour gig.

Despite all of this, neither hard science nor human rights-based appeals have so far secured a commitment from the province to remove the mercury from the English-Wabigoon River system. It seems prudent to ask at this juncture whether the first nation is trapped in a nightmarish political timeloop: activism, river run, empty promises, testing, lack of concrete remedial action, and activism again. What will it really take to generate the political will to overcome the Premier’s professed concern that “if [the ministry] take[s] certain actions we will make the situation worse”?

Taking no action has already made the situation worse. What more are we waiting for?

Perhaps we are waiting for the idea of knowingly allowing people to suffer and die of preventable causes to become horrifying to our province’s decision makers. Perhaps we are waiting for evidence-based science to be granted enough weight to have real policy influence. Either way, it looks like we may be waiting a long time.