Environmental racism underlies Grassy Narrows’ crises

Science Matters | David Suzuki

Young people from Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario are three times as likely to have attempted to take their own lives as young people from other First Nations in Canada. They’re also more likely to have been exposed to high levels of mercury. Is there a connection?

Researchers from Grassy Narrows and the University of Quebec at Montreal say there is.

In a peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, the researchers — Donna Mergler, Aline Philibert, Myriam Fillion and Judy Da Silva — conclude that decades of exposure to mercury is a major factor in the crisis.

From 1962 to 1970, the Dryden Pulp and Paper company and its chemical plant dumped up to 11,000 kilograms of mercury into the headwaters of the English-Wabigoon River system, which caused the fishery to close as mercury concentrations in fish reached almost “50 times the upper limit considered safe for human consumption.” Grassy Narrows, or Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek, had not reported any youth suicides or attempts before the mercury contamination. Over 11 months in the late 1970s, 26 young people between 11 and 19 attempted suicide.

Although “loss of their Indigenous culture and values, as well as their traditional food and livelihood” in the once-prosperous fishing community, along with the intergenerational trauma from the residential school system, contributed to social upheaval and increased problems with alcohol use and violence, direct effects of mercury poisoning caused a massive increase in youth suicide attempts, the researchers found. More than 27 per cent of adolescents were reported to have attempted suicide at least once.

The study, which examined 80 mothers and 162 children between the ages of five and 17, found that mothers’ childhood mercury exposure “was directly associated with having at least one nervous system disorder, which, in turn, was associated with her current psychological distress.” Other studies, such as one conducted around Minamata, Japan — where a chemical company dumped tainted wastewater into Minamata Bay in the 1950s and ’60s — found similar symptoms from mercury contamination.

In fact, Japanese researchers have monitored the health of Grassy Narrows’ residents since the early 1970s and have concluded that many suffer from Minamata disease. Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, can cause numbness in fingertips and lips, loss of co-ordination, trembling and other neuromuscular problems.

The Grassy Narrows study found that the “maternal psychological distress score was associated with child’s poorer health.” Because about 90 per cent of Grassy Narrows residents were born after the river was contaminated, most were exposed to mercury before birth.

When an expectant mother eats contaminated fish, the developing fetus is exposed to mercury, which can reach levels almost twice as high as in the mother’s blood. According to the researchers, fish consumption during pregnancy affects fetal development and “was the major contributor to children’s mental health and emotional state and behavior.”

Ongoing problems with mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows illustrate “environmental racism” — in which polluting factories and other environmentally damaging activities are disproportionately located near Indigenous or racialized communities.

The study’s authors, who won the 2023 CBC Radio-Canada Scientist of the Year award for their work, also stress the length of time it’s taking for governments to address the problem. They note that successive chiefs, councils and people from Grassy Narrows have been advocating for mercury remediation and protection of their territory for more than 50 years, through “memoirs to federal and provincial parliaments, demonstrations, a hunger strike, and the longest blockade in Canada to stop logging on their territory.”

Mercury levels are lower now but are still high enough to affect fetal development. Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle has called for direct compensation, education and counselling and for the Ontario government to stop issuing mining permits in and around Grassy Narrows’ territory.

“We don’t want any more damage done to our land. We want to preserve our lands so our children can enjoy our land for many generations,” he said.

Grassy Narrows offers a tragic example of the devastating effects of colonialism and environmental racism but also, as the study notes, the “community’s fortitude and resilience over the past decades.”

I encourage everyone to stand with the people of Grassy Narrows, to ensure that these issues are resolved and that we finally put an end to colonial exploitation and environmental racism.

Written with Ian Hanington. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.