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Widespread Mercury Contamination in First Nations Communities Is Being Ignored

Years after multiple First Nation communities in northwestern Ontario were forced to deal with the fallout of extreme mercury contaminations, the damage lingers, and many of the victims remain uncompensated.

by Martha Troian
Jul 31 2014, 6:58pm

Photo of the Wabigoon River, via WikiMedia Commons.
Gloria Kejick often loses her balance and her walking is unstable. Since childhood, she has suffered from tongue tremors, which causes her mouth to move uncontrollably. Kejick is positive she has mercury poisoning, but despite her symptoms, officials in her community don’t believe her. Kejick, 53, is from the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario. In the 1960s, a silent killer devastated the waters and forests where her community is located. Ten tonnes of highly toxic mercury was dumped into Wabigoon-English River by a paper mill. Grassy Narrows and another nearby community, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, negotiated an out-of-court settlement to address the mercury contamination—but the damage is still felt in the community.

Fish are a staple of the local diet, and like her seven siblings, Kejick was raised on it. Both of her parents and one sibling have tested positive for mercury poisoning. It’s believed eating the fish and drinking the water, all contaminated by the mercury spill, poisoned them. As part of the settlement, a “Mercury Disability Board” was created in 1986. The board is tasked with determining who has been poisoned by mercury and who can get financial compensation. Gloria Kejick says she’s been turned down numerous times, even after appealing her applications.

“I’ve been denied right from the beginning when it first started,” says Kejick. Kejick is frustrated that her mother and sibling receive compensation yet she doesn’t, even though she shares the same symptoms. Kejick’s father also received compensation before his death in 1997.

Tremors, lack of coordination, slurred speech, and sensory abnormalities are just a few of the hallmarks of mercury poisoning. Kejick and others say they see these symptoms in themselves and in other community members. “I really don’t understand their way of approving and not approving people,” says Kejick. “We all lived with the same mercury contaminated water and mercury contaminated fish.”

Kejick isn’t alone. VICE has learned that in the last year, 72 First Nation adult members were assessed (36 Wabaseemoong, 36 Grassy Narrows), but only one person was approved for compensation. Kejick and others in her community wonder why so few are compensated when the contamination was so widespread. Since it was created in 1986, the Mercury Disability Board processed 1,008 applications for benefits, but only 193 people are receiving compensation.

Margaret Wanlin is chair of the board. She’s quick to note that over $17 million in benefits has been paid out since the board was formed. “There’s a number of proportion of people that did receive benefits and have since died,” Wanlin says. “Since this started, 108 people have died.” The board awards benefits based on neurological exams that run on a point system. The higher the degree of impairment, the more points tallied and the bigger the benefit. The minimum to receive compensation is six points, with a benefit of $250 per month. Even though the rates haven’t changed since 1986, Wanlin says there’s been no recent discussion to update them.

Stan Benson—not his real name—is from Wabaseemoong. He says community members are beginning to question the neurologists the board hires to do the exams. “They want the two chiefs to try to find somebody else,” Benson says. Kejick remembers during one exam the doctors asked to see her tongue twitch. “They wanted it to see it tremor before I could get the mercury compensation and I said, ‘it doesn’t tremor on demand,’” Kejick says.  Asked whether members could seek a different neurologist outside of the board, Wanlin said yes, as long as the board’s testing regime is used.

Both Benson and Kejick said members are often asked whether they use alcohol or drugs, or if they’re diabetic when going for testing. According to Benson, diabetes and mercury poisoning symptoms can overlap hence making it hard to prove the latter. “Three-quarters of my community are diabetic,” Benson says.

Most of the people receiving benefits today are older, Wanlin says, but Kejick says the younger generation is suffering too. “You can see a 40-year-old struggling to walk like an 80-year-old,” Kejick says. “You have to wonder why.” In his own community, Benson says he can even see birth defects in babies. “What we’re seeing now in newborns is their bodies are crippled,” Benson says. “And their eyes are not level with the other one.” Mercury poisoning is also known to cause eye impairments and tunnel vision. Benson says there is even one girl with webbed feet.

First Nations here fear the past could repeat itself. Just weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the province has the right to issue licenses for logging on the Grassy Narrows traditional territory. Community members worry that more logging means more mercury making its way into the water system.  Even more recently, First Nation leaders in Ontario are furious after learning about a buried 2010 report that showed the effects of mercury poisoning on their people was worse than they were told. That prompted a Grassy Narrows First Nation elder, Steve Fobister Sr., to go on a two-day hunger strike. Even more infuriating for community members was news that the Mercury Disability Board commissioned the report.

Asked whether she would apply again for benefits, Kejick says no. “What’s the use? Mercury is always going to be there, it’s not going to get cleaned up,” Kejick says. “No amount of compensation or money is going to replace how long that mercury is going to stay here and how many generations it’s going to poison.”