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Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations Mercury Poisoning, Ont., Canada


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.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations Mercury Poisoning, Ont., Canada
State or province:Ontario
Location of conflict:Wabigoon River
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Deforestation
Water access rights and entitlements
Aquaculture and fisheries
Specific commodities:Fish

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The mill used mercury cells in sodium chloride electrolysis to make caustic soda and chlorine for bleaching paper, dumping 10 tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970.

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:1000
Start of the conflict:1962
Company names or state enterprises:Dryden Timber and Power Company from Canada - later sold to Weyerhauser and now owned by Domtar, US
Domtar from Canada
Relevant government actors:Ontario Government, Federal Government, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Rainforest Action Network, Amnesty International, Council of Canadians, Greenpeace Canada, Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement Friends of Grassy Narrows solidarity group and Earth Justice Action: Supporting Indigenous Land Defense

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Religious groups
First Nations
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Land occupation
Public campaigns
Annual river run events that entail travelling 2000 km to Toronto by foot, bus and rail for a week of educational, media and social movement-building events


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Other Health impactsMercury poisoning, minimata disease: Common neurological symptoms include unsteadiness, tremors, and sensory impairment, birth defects
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Negotiated alternative solution
Strengthening of participation
Development of alternatives:Leaders of the Grassy Narrows First Nations are demanding that the Ontario government acknowledge mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows and apologize. They also want to see the river cleaned.
As well, they want a permanent Grassy Narrows-run environmental health monitoring centre.
And they want the compensation offered to those affected to be retroactively indexed to inflation.
Read more:
Furthermore, Grassy Narrows, and their supporters, are demanding:
RESPONSIBILITY: Acknowledge mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, apologize, and accept responsibility to fix what was broken.
SAFETY: Fund a permanent Grassy Narrows run environmental health monitoring center. Strengthen Health Canada mercury safety guideline to protect all people.
COMPENSATION: Compensate all people diagnosed by the Japanese doctors, and retroactively index the compensation to inflation.
RESTORATION: Clean and restore the English-Wabigoon river system. Stop the mills from polluting the water and air.
JUSTICE: Restore Grassy Narrows control over Grassy Narrows Territory. End destructive industrial logging on Grassy Narrows territory.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Grassy Narrows is still mobilizing for proper compensation and clean-up and other environmental issues such as deforestation continue to devastate their livelihoods

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Treaty 3 harvesting clause: Her Majesty further agrees with Her said Indians that they, the said Indians, shall have right to pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing throughout the tract surrendered as hereinbefore described, subject to such regulations as may from time to time be made by Her Government of Her Dominion of Canada, and saving and excepting such tracts as may, from time to time, be required or taken up for settlement, mining, lumbering or other purposes by Her said Government of the Dominion of Canada, or by any of the subjects thereof duly authorized therefor by the said Government.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Grassy Narrows emblematic of water injustice in Canada

Mercury still damaging health of Grassy Narrows residents: report

How Grassy Narrows’ lawsuit could change aboriginal-government relations across Canada

Meta information

Contributor:Leah Temper
Last update08/04/2014