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Grassy Narrows emblematic of water injustice in Canada

As Stephen Harper attempts to position himself as a champion of maternal and infant health, the Council of Canadians joins the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations in denouncing the long term health impacts of mercury poisoning in Northwestern Ontario which have passed from one generation to another as a result of pregnant mothers eating contaminated fish. Between 1962 and 1970, the Wabigoon river an important freshwater resource in Northwestern Ontario and a major source of food supply for the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations was poisoned when a pulp and paper mill discharged 20, 000 tons of mercury into the river with the permission of the Ontario government. Today, a recently translated report by Japanese mercury expert, Dr. Harada reveals that the Grassy Narrows people are worse off than they were 40 years ago when he first visited the community to study the impacts of mercury poisoning.When Dr. Harada returned in 2004, he found that 43% of his original Grassy Narrows patients were now dead. In patients tested for Minamata disease – a neurological condition caused by severe mercury poisoning – Dr. Harada found symptoms of varying degrees in up to 79% of the patients. This included many residents who were reported to have mercury levels below the Health Canada guidelines in the 1970s.Many of these patients have been denied compensation by the provincial government. At a public event held last night, Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians pointed to the Harper government’s agenda of undermining environmental legislation and enabling continued destruction of water resources as a trend that would lead to more tragedies like that experienced by the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations. She talked about Schedule 2, a loophole in the Fisheries Act that has enabled mining companies to turn healthy lakes and rivers in to toxic dumpsites for mining waste as an example of ongoing water injustice in Canada. Ontario and Canada need to be held accountable The Federal and provincial governments have failed to protect the Grassy Narrows community from the devastating effects of large scale industrial poisoning that has led to deaths and serious neurogical conditions that have affected at least three generations. Heath Canada guidelines have proven to be inadequate and many who have suffered from Minamata disease have not been compensated for the tragedy. Canada needs a federal water policy that recognizes water as a human right The lack of a federal water policy that protects the environment and human health has allowed large scale corporate abuse of water resources in Canada. Furthermore, Canada has prevented the recognition of water as a human right in international law by blocking resolutions at key UN meetings. This is consistent with the agenda of a government that has undermined environmental safeguards to promote corporate profit. The Grassy Narrows tragedy highlights the importance of a federal water policy that will protect the interests of communities across Canada by recognizing water as a human right and a public resource that cannot be destroyed for private interests. Indigenous communities need environmental justice Indigenous communities in Canada are the first to feel the impacts of industrial contamination of water resources. In cases like the mercury poisoning of the Wabigoon River, the proposal by Taseko Mines to destroy Fish Lake in British Columbia, Chemical Valley in Sarnia Ontario, the destruction of the Athabasca watershed by tar sands production in Northern Alberta, health impacts have been denied by provincial or federal authorities and First Nations governments have had little say. Provincial and federal authories in Canada have a duty to consult on a government to government basis and do not have a right to authorize developments that impact the health, well-being and way of life of Indigenous communities. A rally on Queens Park today called on the provincial and federal governments to implement a plan that would:

  • Bring  federal and provincial governments to the table with First Nations leadership to address the Grassy Narrows mercury contamination

  • Acknowledge mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows

  • Strengthen Healh Canada mercury safety guidelines

  • Establish permanent monitoring through funding for a Grassy Narrows-run environmental health centre and training for youth

  • Stop the mills from polluting the water and air Protect rivers, lakes annd water sources Restore Grassy Narrows control over Grassy Narrows territory

  • End clearcutting in the area permanently

The call by Grassy Narrows was endorsed by a network of over 30 organizations including the Council of Canadians, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Sierra Club, Earthroots, the Sierra Youth Coalition, No one is illegal and several others. Take action! Individuals can join the campaign in a number of different ways. To find out how you can take action, please visit: http://freegrassy.net/take-action/ Blog post written by Meera Karunananthan, National Water Campaigner, Council of Canadians