A recent report says residents of Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) face significantly worse health outcomes compared to other Indigenous communities.
The English-Wabigoon River system is contaminated with mercury, from industrial pollution dumped into the waterway between the early 1960s and 1970s, by Reed Paper, former owners of the Dryden mill. Residents have fished within this system for many generations.
The study shows the overall physical and mental health of the community is considerably worse than in other Indigenous communities, determined by various health indicators.
Surveyed residents of Grassy Narrows report a higher rate of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts versus other Indigenous communities, and one third of residents have lost a close friend or family member to suicide at a rate five times higher than the average within Indigenous communities.
Mercury exposure through consumption of contaminated fish presents poor health and well-being outcomes, which impacts the economic and social prosperity of Grassy Narrows and its residents. The loss of a clean fishing source has also deprived the community of a traditional and nutritious food.
The report finds that current community health and social services programs are inadequate to address the issues Grassy Narrows faces. Recommendations include considering the high co-morbidity of health issues in clinical care, future studies, and mercury poisoning compensation, as well as urgently improving care for those with mercury poisoning.
It calls for long term, stable programs to provide nutritious food to Grassy Narrows residents, and intensifying progress in discovering and recovering clean fishing areas as well as enabling the means to harvest other traditional foods.
One major recommendation is that the “recognition of the consequences of the major disaster that took place in the English-Wabigoon River system and the continuing impact of mercury poisoning should form the basis of designing and delivering an adequate health and social services system.”
Judy Da Silva, environmental health coordinator for Grassy Narrows, said the community has needs more to address the “devastation of a whole way of life, a whole way of culture that we need to rebuild.”
“The really basic human right that everybody has is to have a good healthy environment, to be alive,” Da Silva said. “Everybody takes it for granted. Us, we live with the big heavy ten-tonne elephant on our back, ten tonnes of mercury. We still have children, babies — who knows what the results are in the next four or five generations of children that will be born.”
Cleanup of the river will take 12 to 14 years, Da Silva said, noting the community was told by engineers that cleanup won’t even begin for another two years owing to technical considerations such as sediment sampling and how the cleanup will be funded.
“I don’t want to appear the victim because we’re not,” she said. “We’re fighters and we’re going to keep fighting. We’re going to keep doing what we have to do to bring justice to our people.” A second report will address the findings for Grassy Narrows children.