The Dryden Observer

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Mercury fears still linger after 40 years

Chris Marchand

Chris Marchand served as editor of the Dryden Observer from August 2009 to April 2018.

Grassy Narrows residents press province to re-assess mercury contamination in Wabigoon River

Bill Fobister smiles when I show him the photograph.

“That’s me,” he says.

In the Dryden Observer picture, he’s standing in a group of 13 fellow Grassy Narrows residents on the steps of the provincial government building in Dryden back in 1973.

The group of fishing guides and hunters had come looking for answers from the government about blood and hair tests for mercury that were performed on band members but never released. They wanted to know what the government was prepared to do about mercury contamination in their community’s waterways that originated in Dryden.

Thirty-eight years later, the senior band council member has been keeping a close eye on the news out of Toronto as the next generation of Grassy Narrows residents, a contingent of 25 bolstered by supportive environmentalists, brought the very same questions to the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park.

Bill Fobister says he has felt the effects of mercury firsthand and says the health problems associated with Minamata disease are still prevalent in the community – symptoms like tremors, numbness in the fingertips, tunnel-vision, loss of coordination and reflexes and slurred speech.

“That fear still lingers on in the community,” said Fobister. “Younger people are asking why am I like this? Why is my coordination not the way it should be? It seems like everyday, someone comes in and asks whether it’s safe to eat the fish. We always try to warn them about what can happen if it becomes part of the daily diet. Every once in a while is okay, but not three meals a day.”

The work of Japanese researcher Masazumi Harada supports that assessment. Harada, who has conducted a 35-year study of the effects of mercury contamination in the Wabigoon River on the communities of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations has found a high rate of neurological symptoms which his report attributes to a varying severity of Minamata Disease.

While Harada’s report says he expects no new cases of Minamata disease to emerge, he suggests that the Mercury Disability Board, established in 1985 in an out-of-court settlement between the affected First Nations, Reed Paper, Great Lakes Forest Products and the provincial and federal government, could be doing more to broaden its criteria for the diagnosis of Minamata disease and provide more effective support for those affected.

“…Many mild cases and patients and patients with severe psychogenic symptoms were not acknowledged,” says Harada in an English translation of his report. “In those cases, the board’s criteria are another version of the Japanese government’s criteria. This is a typical problem.”

It took Fobister six years to have his symptoms recognized as mercury-related by the board.

Premier Dalton McGuinty pledged his government would examine the results of the Japanese report in the coming days.

“We’ve been trying to voice our concern about the water system,” said Fobister. “Because that’s where the mercury is sitting to this day, in the sediment. There is no way to clean it.”

Fobister says the government has been testing water samples over the years but the First Nation has not been privy to the results.

“Every now and again we ask them about,” he said. “They say, ‘yeah, we’re doing that,’ but we haven’t seen any records.”

-Chris Marchand

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