The mercury originated in the 1960s from a chemical and pulp mill in Dryden, Ont., owned by Reed Paper Co. From there it got into the English-Wabigoon River System and then into the fish. For the two First Nations, the fish were the main food source and the commercial fishery and related tourism businesses were their main livelihood.
The mercury problem was identified in 1969, and in 1970 the government order Reed Paper to stop releasing mercury into the water system and closed the local fishery.
Since then, people have received mixed messages about whether the fish is safe to eat, but many still do.
Four decades later, the effects of that mercury – an estimated 9,000 kg – are still present. (The airborne release of mercury by the mill continued until 1975.) Although lower, the mercury levels in fish continue to be above safe levels and people downstream from Dryden continue to have the symptoms of Minamata disease — even people born long after the mercury dumping had ended.
In 2010 a team from Japan examined 160 adults from Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, as White Dog is now named. They found that '33.7 per cent [54 people] of the target group would be diagnosed as Minamata Disease patients' and that 'a total of 58.7 per cent [94 people] was affected by mercury.' (Harada Report) Symptoms observed in at least one third of the people in the target group include: sensory disturbances on the limbs, difficulty walking a straight line, difficulty seeing, visual disturbances, hearing impairment, headaches, insomnia, exhaustion, fatigue and numbness in the limbs.
A compensation agreement was reached with the federal and Ontario governments in 1985, which had long been in denial about the effects of the dumped mercury on human health. It provided for a Mercury Disability Board to dispense payments from a fund to which the governments, as well as Reed Paper and Great Lakes Forest Products Ltd., which took over the mill from Reed, made a one-time only contribution. The compensation is based on a point system for the severity of symptoms. However, the three-decade-old agreement had no provision to adjust the payments for inflation and the Harada report found that for Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong combined, only one quarter 'of those whom we diagnosed or deemed suspicious of Minamata Disease were officially approved' for compensation. One of the keys authors of the report explained that the mercury poisoning victims in Japan received $800,000 US as compensation in 1973 and continue to receive $2,000 to $8,000 per month, also based on the severity of symptoms. In Canada, the board designates payments from $250 to $800 per month.
Grassy Narrows continues to fight deforestation on their land that threatens their remaining food source - their hunting habitat. The community continues to organize events, marches and maintain the blockade to bring attention to their environmental struggles and their efforts to protect their land, water and forests.