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Mercury is damaging the health of children living in Grassy Narrows

In spite of mercury poisoning, young people are still thriving, a new study has found.

by Hilary Beaumont
Dec 5 2018, 5:11pm

Youth from Grassy Narrows in 2016 music video "Home To Me". Youtube.

A new study led by Grassy Narrows First Nation has found a link between mothers who eat fish from the community’s river system during pregnancy and the poor health and school performance of their children.

But young residents say they are thriving in spite of the decades-old mercury contamination, recording music videos and taking part in cultural events, the report emphasizes.

The report released on Wednesday is the second in a two-part health study that suggests mercury contamination in the river system dating back 50 years continues to devastate the health of Grassy Narrows residents today.

The study also found that the likelihood of children being taken into the care of child services is higher among those whose maternal grandfather had worked as a fishing guide, “suggesting intergenerational consequences of the disaster that hit this community.”

In the 1960s, a paper mill dumped mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system, contaminating sediment 250 kilometres downstream. That mercury continues to be absorbed into the food chain, accumulating in large fish including prized walleye, which Grassy Narrows residents have eaten for generations. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause birth defects, learning disabilities, numbness in the hands and feet, and mental illness including anxiety and depression. More than 300 people in the community have been diagnosed with mercury poisoning.

“Our conclusion is that fish, fishing practices and intergenerational fishing have affected the children and are still affecting the children of Grassy Narrows, who have more health problems than children and youth in other First Nations” the study’s author, Donna Mergler, said at a press conference on Parliament Hill on Wednesday.

Grassy Narrows chief Rudy Turtle also demanded proper compensation for his community, saying everyone is suffering but only six percent of residents have been compensated by the province.

“I’m calling on the federal government to increase our funding in special-ed to help these children in need, these children that need help with their education. In addition I’m also calling on the federal government to provide compensation for all the community members of Grassy Narrows.”

On Tuesday evening, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the Assembly of First Nations, chief Turtle held up a blue T-shirt that said: “PM Trudeau: Will you compensate us for the mercury crisis?”

Turtle told reporters he had asked Trudeau to visit his community. “He hasn’t given a favourable response, and he’s always said I’m too busy, so obviously he’s showing that he’s not really putting this as a priority,” he said.

“We’ve been polluted for 50 years now, and it’s time that he did something. So we’re not very happy.”

“The resulting loss of culture, livelihood, physical and mental health and a highly nutritious food source greatly impacted the community,” the study states. “Recent evidence has shown that although mercury concentration in fish in the river system has decreased over time, during these children’s lifetime, it is still high and has not decreased since the mid 1980s.”

The study surveyed 353 young people, ranging from infancy to 18 years old. Surveyors asked the children and their parents 173 questions, many of them borrowed from the 2008/10 First Nations Regional Health Survey so that the Grassy Narrows study could be compared to other First Nations.

Compared to other communities, Grassy Narrows children have a higher prevalence of chronic conditions and emotional issues associated with mothers eating fish during pregnancy, the study found.

Mother’s fish consumption is associated with poorer overall physical health, including visual problems, ear infections, speech and language disorders, learning disability and nervous system issues, the study says. It’s also linked to poor mental health compared to children of the same age and sex.

Forty-one children, or 12 percent of all those surveyed, were in the care of Child and Family Services at the time of the survey. More than 100 of those surveyed had at one time been in care. A high number of the children who had been in care, 22 percent, considered that care “damaging.” Children who had a maternal grandfather who had been a fishing guide were more likely to be taken into care.

The report states that the children surveyed wish to be “more than mercury.” Young people from Grassy Narrows are “nationally known for their ability and persistence in organizing events that seek to further their culture and traditions” the report states, pointing to a blockade against clear-cutting on their territory and the annual river run protest at the Ontario legislature to bring attention to the mercury contamination. The survey found more than two-thirds of young people participate in community cultural events, and half of all the young people participate in events to recognize their First Nation’s rights. One of the best examples is the music video “Home to me” they recorded in 2016.

During the 2016 river run, VICE News spoke to Grassy Narrows resident Draven Kirkness, who stood up with his friends in the legislature to protest then-premier Kathleen Wynne’s lack of response to the ongoing disaster. Security escorted them out.

Kirkness said his best friend Calvin Kokopenace died of mercury poisoning.

“He was more than just a friend, he was my best friend, he was my family, he was actually my cousin,” Kirkness said. “Losing him really impacted the whole community, because to me that felt like the first death of mercury. Mercury has struck one of our young people. Right now he’d be about 19, 20, if he was still alive, but he ain’t and he’s gone, and I wish there was something that they could have done. I wish there was some treatment or some surgery he could have went through to get that mercury out, but it didn’t turn out [that way] in the end I guess.”

The first part of the two-part study found a higher instance of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts compared to other First Nations, and that elders in the community are dying prematurely, threatening their ability to pass on traditional knowledge to younger generations.

Wednesday’s report was dedicated to elder Steve Fobister Sr., who died this year at age 66. Fobister, who was a fishing guide and suffered from a neurological disorder, had fought for a senior care home for people suffering from mercury poisoning.

Cover image of Youth from Grassy Narrows in 2016 music video "Home To Me". Youtube.