Photo from the Grassy Narrows blockade. Image via Facebook.
Steve Fobister Sr. is from the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Since the late 1960s the community has been living with the aftermath of a 10-ton mercury spill in the Wabigoon River system.
Last month, Fobister began a hunger strike to draw attention to how his community still struggles with mercury poisoning from the spill. Fobister was two days into the hunger strike when he met with Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer. Fobister demanded the establishment of a treatment centre for people suffering from mercury poisoning, a review of the compensation process for residents, and improved health care agreements for mercury victims.
“I think it went pretty well, I think we met on common ground,” Fobister said of his most recent meeting with the minister. “I think they are very committed.” Fobister says the ministry told him they will work at championing a review of the Mercury Disability Board—a body set up to determine who has been poisoned by mercury and who will receive benefits. Fobister also says the ministry told him it would look at improving the level of compensation victims receive.
Many Grassy Narrows residents, including Fobister, still live with mild to severe mercury poisoning side effects. It's a problem so severe and the effects so rare that this week, scientists from Japan are travelling to the area to study the effects on the people there. In fact, Japanese scientists were among the first to study those effects back in the 1960s.
Yet Fobister, who suffers from severe mercury poisoning, receives just $250 a month from the Mercury Disability Board. He's one of the lucky ones. Recently, VICE reported that since its creation in 1986 the Mercury Disability Board processed 1,008 applications for benefits, but only 193 people are receiving compensation.
According to Fobister, the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs told him they would look at all previously denied applications. “They’re going to revise all applications for those who were denied,” says Fobister. “For those who should have gotten compensation, especially for the people who are very ill and were not compensated.”
Many Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong members feel they are unfairly being denied compensation. VICE also reported 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.
Whatever was told to Fobister, the ministry now insists the Mercury Disability Board already has a process for unsuccessful applicants to reapply every two years. Any changes to the Mercury Review Board will need approval by Wabaseemoong First Nation and the federal government first.
So far no one from the ministry has contacted Wabaseemoong First Nation. Aboriginal Affairs wasn’t immediately available to confirm whether they have been contacted.
Long-time Grassy Narrows activist Judy Da Silva says the ministry's sudden change of tune is no surprise. “Zimmer was making those promises under [the threat of] that hunger strike,” Da Silva says.
According to Da Silva, the ministry found out about Fobister’s plan to initiate a hunger strike before it even happened. She says a ministry representative called her and asked whether Fobister “is in his right mind.” Da Silva was livid. “I said, ‘He is. He is very smart, he is very intelligent.’”
Da Silva did note, however, that Fobister suffers from the debilitating effects of mercury poisoning.
Fobister believes that in time, his condition will only worsen. He says he can't understand why his community must fight when communities like Walkerton, Ont made national headlines for their E. coli outbreak in the year 2000.
“It’s almost like environmental discrimination, compared to what happened in Walkerton.”