Children of Grassy Narrows have higher reported rates of health problems, learning disabilities

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Though it has been 50 years since a mill dumped mercury upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation, the reserve’s children are showing troubling signs that the neurotoxin is still poisoning the community.

Children whose mothers ate fish at least once a week while pregnant are four times more likely to have a learning disability or nervous system disorder that is slowing their efforts in school, says new research led by a leading mercury expert. Those kids were compared to Grassy Narrows children whose mothers hardly ever ate fish.

Dr. Donna Mergler and a team of scientists surveyed the families of 350 children ages 4 to 17. The research is part of an ongoing, comprehensive study that has already revealed the adults of Grassy Narrows report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts compared to other First Nations adults.

During the 1960s, the Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River that feeds Grassy Narrows downstream. The mill was using the mercury to bleach paper. The mercury contaminated the walleye downstream and poisoned the people who ate the fish. They developed tremors, slurred speech, impaired hearing and tunnel vision, and lost muscle co-ordination.

The robust fishing tourism industry, especially at famous Ball Lake Lodge, was decimated. The commercial fishermen and guides went on welfare.

Over the past two years, the Star and scientists have revealed that fish downstream near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province, that there is mercury-contaminated soil and river sediment at or near the site of the old mill, and the provincial government knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under that site and never told anyone in Grassy Narrows or nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations. Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and is polluting the river.

Parents or caregivers responded to the lengthy survey about their kids between December 2016 and March 2017.

The effort was spearheaded by community leaders and Mergler, a mercury expert at Université du Québec à Montréal. It was funded by Health Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care.

The adult survey was supported by records of mercury levels in hair, blood and umbilical cord blood. Those same adults answered questions about their children for this survey.

It shows that Grassy Narrows children age four to 11 have a higher reported rate of ear infections, speech problems and learning disabilities compared to that reported by parents of other First Nations children. Grassy teens are struggling in school, with shorter attention spans than other First Nations teens, the research found.

This comparison is possible because the adult and children surveys were adapted from an older 2008 and 2010 survey that had been given to 12,000 people in First Nations communities across Canada.

Mergler has told the Star that the Grassy Narrows surveys were significant because “it’s the first time that there has been a population-based study of the community that links fish consumption to health outcomes and that looks at the difference between Grassy Narrows and other First Nation communities.

“Grassy Narrows, of course, has all the other issues of the other First Nations, such as residential schools, poverty, poor access to health care, poor access to food and, in addition to that, they have the legacy of mercury poisoning.”

She has said that the survey shows the river must be remediated to protect future generations and that the community needs bolstered health care and education resources.

A report on the survey’s findings recommended that a learning centre be set up to give information on mercury’s impact on a developing fetus and child. It also called for more supports for children, including a full-time child psychologist and speech therapy programs, as well as a community kitchen that serves uncontaminated food. Finally, the report urged officials to revisit the current guidelines on walleye consumption as damage could be occurring at levels lower than previously believed.

Indigenous Services Canada said it welcomes the new survey and will carefully review the results. A spokesperson also said the government “acknowledges that the best health outcomes for Indigenous peoples will be achieved through programs, supports and the identification of required infrastructure that are designed, developed and led by Indigenous communities.”

The research also found:

  • At least 10 per cent of all Grassy Narrows teens have anxiety or depression.
  • The children of mothers who ate fish at least once a month during pregnancy are twice as likely to have visual problems and three times more likely to have chronic ear infections, compared to children of Grassy Narrows mothers who hardly or never ate fish during pregnancy.
  • Two-thirds of children and youth eat bannock and walleye, traditional foods, with half eating walleye at least a few times during the past year.
  • 92 per cent of the children whose pregnant mothers ate fish at least once a week had a grandfather who was a fishing guide.
  • The likelihood of these grandchildren of fishing guides having been in the care of child and family services is five times greater than those whose grandfather was not a fishing guide.

“The tradition and culture of fishing and fish consumption have been passed down from one generation to the next,” the report said. “However, since the 1970s, so, too, has the loss of the traditional economy, unemployment and sickness. Fishing guides and their familes were the most highly exposed to mercury and the first to lose their jobs.

“The legacy of mercury compounds and exacerbates the legacies of colonialism and residential schools on the health and wellbeing of the next generation.”

Last year, the provincial government committed $85 million to clean up the river and the federal government has pledged to help build a mercury care home that will help some of the sickest residents. The clean-up work has not yet begun, though experts are conducting research to determine how to best remediate the river.

And this year the province retroactively indexed payments from the Mercury Disability Board to inflation. The board, which was set up during the 1980s to compensate those who can demonstrate symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning, had long been criticized as being inadequate. Roughly 70 per cent of applicants had been turned down for compensation. Earlier this year, the board’s longtime neurologist quit after an allegation of bias. The doctor said he had done no wrong and wanted an apology, and when he did not get one, he said, he quit.

“We are proud of our kids. They amaze me every day with their humour, their pride, and their strength,” said Judy Da Silva, a Grassy Narrows mother and community activist. “They should not have to fight again and again for basic justice that others in Canada take for granted. They should not have to overcome hunger, poverty, and poison in order to succeed.”

The new research also found signs that the children of Grassy Narrows are active despite their significant challenges.

More than two-thirds of all children and youth participate in community-organized cultural events, and 88 per cent of children swim, jog or mountain bike.

Many of the teens of Grassy Narrows have participated in logging blockades and marches to protest governmment inaction on the mercury contamination. Their song “Home to me” has more than a quarter-million views on youtube, the website says.

“Our youth are brave and talented people who have overcome great obstacles to leave their mark on Canada,” said Chief Rudy Turtle. “But every day they face the legacies of mercury, colonialism, and residential schools, so it is an uphill battle for them. They deserve to have a good life and to enjoy themselves like other youth do, without having to fight again and again for basic fairness.

David Bruser is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidBruser

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Grassy Narrows leader Steve Fobister dead at 66

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When Steve Fobister came to protest outside the Legislature in 2014, the former fishing guide and chief came with his tent and an ultimatum.

Fobister, who was suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder, wanted a care home for those suffering from mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Steve Fobister at home in 2015.
Steve Fobister at home in 2015.  (FreeGrassy.net)

“He said quite calmly: ‘I will stay until I get some action. Or until I die,’ ” recalled former Indigenous affairs minister David Zimmer. “Though he and his community had a lot to be really angry about, he was a gentle person. His goal was to do something about it.”

Fobister’s brief hunger strike got Ontario’s attention and a promise to explore building a home.

He did not live long enough to see the facility built or any of the recent promises by lawmakers come to his community. Fobister died Thursday, not at home close to his relatives and culture, but in a Kenora, Ont., hospital after shuttling between there and a Thunder Bay facility 600 kilometres from Grassy Narrows.

Like a lot of the young men at the time, Fobister was a trapper and fishing guide to wealthy tourists who came to Grassy Narrows and the famous Ball Lake Lodge camp. He frequently ate the fish.

During the 1960s, the Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River that feeds Grassy Narrows downstream. The potent neurotoxin contaminated the fish and poisoned the people who ate it. They developed tremors, slurred speech and tunnel vision, and lost muscle co-ordination. Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and continues to pollute the river.

What many residents of Grassy Narrows have, according to Japanese scientists, is Minamata disease — also known as methylmercury poisoning. It was first discovered in 1956 in Japan and takes its name from Minamata city.

Leg cramps, a stutter and loss of balance forced Fobister to stop working as a railroad engineer in the early 1970s. He was examined by Japanese researchers and diagnosed with mercury poisoning, he said.

He then became a band councillor, politically active on the reserve. An old photo, published in the Star in 1978, shows Fobister and Grassy Narrows resident Fred Land leaning on an Ontario government sign posted in their community. It says, “Check Before You Eat,” and provides guidelines on the consumption of contaminated fish.

Photograph of Steve Fobister (left) that ran in the Star in 1978.
Photograph of Steve Fobister (left) that ran in the Star in 1978.  (Toronto Star file photo)

Fobister lived off the land and loved eating game, though in his final days he struggled to keep down duck soup, said his niece Christine Pahpasay.

Around the campfire, telling stories, he made bannock. “Oh, it was nice and thick, and so soft. It was no effort, it came to him naturally,” Pahpasay said.

“I think he was always a leader, even when he didn’t hold a title.”

Fobister was the Grand Chief of Treaty #3, Chief of Grassy Narrows for five terms, a probation officer, environmentalist, hunter, Ball Lake Lodge manager and hockey coach of the “Famous Grassy Narrows Rockies.”

He was fearless but wasn’t loud about it, said Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald, who joined Fobister in 2000 to protest clear-cutting of forests. “He was a very measured, calm, gentle, kind person. He loved his community. He was not afraid of anything. That’s the kind of person you want to go into a battle with.”

Fobister, along with government officials, helped set up the Mercury Disability Board in the mid 1980s to compensate those who can demonstrate symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning. The board has long been criticized by Fobister and others as being inadequate. The criteria for payments are too restrictive and the amounts too low, they have said.

In a statement sent to the provincial and federal governments Wednesday, the family said: “We call on you to admit at long last that Steve Fobister Sr. lived with mercury poisoning and died from mercury poisoning. … (Steve) was forced to fight for four decades for mercury justice in the face of denial, delay, and discrimination.”

When the Star visited him in 2016, Fobister attributed his hand weakness, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing to mercury poisoning. He said he got $250 per month. “A lot of people felt that I should have got the max” of $800.

“(Doctors) tell me that I have ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). I also have mercury poisoning. I’m also a diabetic,” he said. “It’s been hard living.”

In the living room of his small house, Fobister, his body stooped and inert, looked out the window.

“You look at the lake. It looks good, it looks clean, the fish look all right. How to believe that something like that could turn against you?”

He seemed weary of fighting.

“Look at me. I’m a sick old man. … My community is sick. … We’ve done this for 40 years and nothing has changed. My life is gone. It’s been destroyed. I hope the future generation can have a better life than what I had.”

Former Grassy Narrows leader Steve Fobister died on October 11, 2018. Fobister suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder likely caused by mercury poisoning on the First Nation.

Fobister never stopped advocating for a better future for his people, though, telling a friend last fall that a healthcare facility on reserve “could be a beginning. …I think it is time that we should try to look after each other.”

Spurred in part by Fobister’s brief hunger strike, the disability board underwent a sweeping review. This led to the announcement this year that the province will retroactively index payments to inflation.

There have been other developments.

Recent research found eating fish with higher levels of mercury may be linked to a higher risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), though the ALS Association notes that the same finding has not been made across all studies.

And after the Star and scientists revealed that fish downstream near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province and that there is mercury-contaminated soil and river sediment at or near the site of the old mill, the province committed $85 million to clean up the river. Then the federal government pledged to help build the care home that will help some of the sickest residents.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer with Fobister at Queen's Park in 2014 during his hunger strike.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer with Fobister at Queen’s Park in 2014 during his hunger strike.  (Robert Benzie/Toronto Star file photo)

“Steve leaves behind him a legacy of powerful advocacy and courage. He was a testament not only to his community, Treaty 3 and the Anishinabe people of northern Ontario, but he set a standard for leadership for others to follow,” new Ontario Indigenous affairs minister Greg Rickford said.

And on Wednesday federal Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott reaffirmed her government’s commitment to help build the home. She said money has already been provided for planning and design. The facility could include palliative care, physiotherapy, counselling and traditional healing.

About 150 people gathered for Fobister’s funeral service, the room smelling of sage and cedar. Elders closed the ceremony with an Anishinabe version of the Travelling Song played on a hand drum.

Fobister was wrapped in a white blanket and then a black one, each adorned with Indigenous designs, and then buried. Family members were then told to walk to their vehicles and not look back.

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Declaring sovereignty over land, Grassy Narrows FN leaders ban clear-cut logging

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Industrial loggers are banned from clear-cutting the boreal forest near Grassy Narrows, leaders of the First Nation have declared in a land sovereignty claim meant to help the community recover from decades of pollution.

There is currently no ongoing industrial logging in the part of the Whiskey Jack Forest that sits in territory Grassy Narrows leaders say is their peoples’.

A local resident catches a fish in the Wabigoon River. Industrial loggers are banned from clear-cutting parts of the forest near Grassy Narrows, leaders of the First Nation have declared in a land sovereignty claim.
A local resident catches a fish in the Wabigoon River. Industrial loggers are banned from clear-cutting parts of the forest near Grassy Narrows, leaders of the First Nation have declared in a land sovereignty claim.  (Todd Korol / Toronto Star)

Though the provincial government has decided who can log and where, the community announced a moratorium in 2007 and there has been no harvesting since the company operating in the area agreed to leave shortly after. Then, in 2017, Ontario’s previous government promised no cutting for at least five more years.

Grassy Narrows leaders fear the new Doug Ford government will re-open the forest to business. A spokesperson for Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Jeff Yurek said “we cannot comment on a document we ourselves have not yet received. »

“We are the Indigenous people of this land. … Industrial logging makes our ongoing mercury crisis worse,” said the declaration signed by Chief Rudy Turtle and council. “We will make our own decisions and there will be no industrial logging on our Anishinabe Territory.”

Between 1962 and 1970 a Dryden, Ont., paper plant dumped 10 tonnes of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, in the Wabigoon River. The site of the plant, now under different ownership, is upstream from Grassy Narrows. The mercury contaminated the fish and poisoned the people who ate the fish. They developed tremors, loss of muscle co-ordination, slurred speech and tunnel vision, and still suffer today.

Read more:

Landmark study reveals ‘clear evidence’ of mercury’s toll on health in Grassy Narrows

Opinion | Is Grassy Narrows poisoning a crime against humanity?

‘I started to have seizures at the age of 2.’ Ontario residents describe the ravages of mercury exposure

Logging could lead to more mercury being released to the environment, scientists have said, adding toxic insult to injury for a First Nation already devastated by industrial mercury dumping decades ago.

Over the past two years, the Star and scientists have revealed that fish downstream near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province, that there is mercury-contaminated soil and river sediment at or near the site of the old mill, and the provincial government knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under that site and never told anyone in Grassy Narrows or nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations.

Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and is polluting the river.

Clear-cut logging threatens to add another source of mercury to the water. Here’s how it happens: Mercury gets released into the atmosphere from coal-fired power plants and incinerators and later rains down in forests where it gets trapped in the soil. When a forested area is clear-cut (a large number of trees in one area are uniformly cut down), mercury can run off into lakes and rivers, where its potency gets magnified in aquatic life and travels up the food chain.

Since 2002, some Grassy Narrows members have maintained a blockade of a main road that prevents industrial access to woodlots near their community.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde was in the community north of Kenora Tuesday and signed the declaration as a witness.

“I support their Declaration and their goals of reconciliation, restoration and reparations,” Bellegarde said in a prepared statement. “All governments must recognize, respect and honour our rights and responsibilities to our traditional territories. This includes the right to decide what happens in our territories.”

The Star obtained data from several individuals and it supports what the people here have been saying for decades: Residents have been exposed to dangerously high levels of mercury and younger generations have probably been affected as well. (The Toronto Star)

Top environment ministry officials had serious concerns about a plan to clear-cut near Grassy Narrows, the Star has previously reported.

“Yes, logging introduces Hg (mercury)!” one scientist wrote to a colleague in an internal email. In another email, the former director of the branch that oversees scientists charged with monitoring Ontario’s environment observed that “no one is tracking the downstream implications” of the province’s logging plan.

A logging, or forest management, plan determines how much and where tree harvesting can occur, where roads can be built and how much forest will be renewed. The plan is renewed every 10 years after consultations with stakeholders.

Despite the worries of environment officials, the ministry in 2014 rejected a request by Grassy Narrows for an environmental assessment of the potential impact of the 10-year logging plan in effect then. Grassy Narrows lawyers asked for a judicial review of the ministry’s rejection and the plan itself but then suspended their court fight when former natural resources and forestry minister Kathryn McGarry said there would be no logging in that area for the remaining five years of the plan.

Next year the provincial government is scheduled to begin discussions for the 2022-2032 plan, according to a 2017 letter from the provincial government to Grassy Narrows.

Levi Kokopenace, a Grassy Narrows resident, told the Star last year that he believes mercury caused his hearing problems. He says he was bullied as a child and has contemplated suicide. According to a government-funded health survey, Grassy Narrows residents report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than other First Nations residents.
Levi Kokopenace, a Grassy Narrows resident, told the Star last year that he believes mercury caused his hearing problems. He says he was bullied as a child and has contemplated suicide. According to a government-funded health survey, Grassy Narrows residents report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than other First Nations residents.  (Randy Risling / Toronto Star)

Meanwhile, more than four decades after mercury was dumped by the mill upstream, the physical and mental health of the people in Grassy Narrows is by many key measures “considerably worse” than that of other First Nations in Canada, according to a landmark government-funded survey that was released earlier this year.

While what Grassy Narrows is declaring “could at first glance seem like a radical demand — asserting their sovereignty over their traditional territories” — it is a reasonable and necessary step to take given the “more than half-century of neglect and destruction of their environment … as a result of failure of governments to respect their rights,” said Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International.

“Who’s in the best position to make the decisions for the future of Grassy Narrows?” said Benjamin, who is Amnesty’s campaigner for Indigenous rights. “(Government) failures are apparent. And it’s not just one failure. It has been decade after decade they have failed the people of Grassy Narrows.”

The land declaration also bans mineral staking and mining, hydro damming and oil and gas extraction.

“Our way of life has been under attack by residential schools, … mercury pollution, and racism,” the statement says. “Now our fish are unsafe, the moose and caribou are nearly gone, we have less marten, wild rice and blueberries. Our medicines are tainted.

“Our sovereignty and our rights have been repeatedly violated by harmful decisions forced on our people by government and industry.”

Last year, the provincial government committed $85 million to clean up the river, and the federal government has pledged to help build a mercury care home that will help some of the sickest residents.

The declaration demands compensation for the logging of roughly 20 million trees over a 20-year period.

The declaration will be enforced under Grassy Narrows “own authority,” though Grassy leaders invited the provincial and federal governments to recognize and enforce it through legislation that places similar restrictions on land use and management.

“Decisions forced on our people have poisoned our fish and degraded our forest through industrial logging,” said Chief Turtle. “Moving forward we will make our own decisions to protect what is left of our way of life.”

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