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Fifty years ago last month, in March 1962, Dryden Chemicals began dumping an estimated 10 metric tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River, contaminating the fish which formed the  subsistence and economy of three Indigenous communities Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows), Wabaseemoong (White Dog), and some members of Wabauskang who lived at Quibell.  Half a century later residents of Grassy Narrows are still grappling with the long term health, social, and economic impacts.  Mercury levels in Grassy Narrows fish have yet to return to safe levels. Stopping this pollution, and compensating those affected, was one of the great environmental causes of the 1970s and early 80s.

According to Wikipedia, “in 1962, Dryden Chemical Company began operating a chloralkali process plant in Dryden, Ontario using mercury cells.[1][2] It produced sodium hydroxide and chlorine that were used in large amounts for bleaching paper during production by the nearby Dryden Pulp and Paper Company.[1] Both companies were subsidiaries of the British multinational, Reed International.[1] “

Today, this company is the giant publisher Reed Elsevier.

Wikipedia continues: “Dryden Chemical Company discharged their effluent directly into the WabigoonEnglish River system.”

What did they think they were doing? Mercury was already known to be poisonous, and Minimata Disease had already been discovered in Japan.

“In 1970, extensive mercury contamination was discovered in this river system, leading to closure of the commercial fishery and some tourism related businesses. On March 26, 1970, the Ontario provincial government ordered Dryden Chemical Company to cease dumping mercury into the river system, although the order did not place any restrictions on airborne emissions of mercury by the company.[2] It was estimated that over 9,000 kg of mercury had been dumped by the company into the Wabigoon-English river system between 1962 and 1970.[2] The airborne emissions of mercury continued unabated until the company stopped using mercury cells in its chloralkali process in October 1975; the company closed down in 1976.[2.….

Note: the Ministry of the Environment was created from the Ontario Water Resources Commission and other agencies in 1971. It regulated discharges to both air and water.

“The Asabiinyashkosiwagong Nitam-Anishinaabeg or the “Grassy Narrows First Nation” and their downstream neighbours, the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations (then known as the “Whitedog Community of the Islington Band of Saulteaux”) sought compensation for loss of jobs and way of life. …6]

“In 1985, a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was signed committing government and two companies (Reed Limited, and Great Lakes Forest Products Ltd.) to a one-time compensation payment. In 1986, the Government of Canada’s Grassy Narrows and Islington Indian Bands Mercury Pollution Claims Settlement Act and the Government of Ontario’sEnglish and Wabigoon River Systems Mercury Contamination Settlement Agreement Act, facilitated the creation of the Mercury Disability Fund (MDF) and the Mercury Disability Board, based in Kenora, Ontario. The federal and provincial governments, as well as the two companies involved, paid a total of $16.67 million for the MOA compensation. Canada’s contribution was $2.75 million. Part of the First Nations’ MOA settlement ($2 million) was placed in a trust fund (which the Province of Ontario is responsible for replenishing when the balance drops below $100,000). The Board administers the trust as well as a benefits mechanism.[6]

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Nevertheless, the community members have seen little of this money”.

The Mercury Disability Board website says: “In November 1985, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations (formerly Islington, formerly Whitedog) and Grassy Narrows First Nation negotiated an out of court settlement with the federal government, the province of Ontario, and two paper companies (Reed Incorporated and Great Lakes Forest Products Limited) for all claims due to mercury contamination in the English and Wabigoon river systems.  In 1986, both the federal government and the province of Ontario enacted legislation to carry out the terms of the settlement.

“The settlement provided for the establishment of a Mercury Disability Fund and a Mercury Disability Board.

“Members of Wabaseemoong Independent Nations and Grassy Narrows First Nation whose health may have been affected by mercury poisioning in the English and Wabigoon river systems may be entitled to an award from the Mercury Disability Fund.

“The Mercury Disability Board supervises the administration of the Fund and oversees a claims and appeals process that is available to all Wabaseemoong and Grassy Narrows band members or those who are registered Indians who were customarily resident on one of the two reserves before the first day of October 1985.”

Have we learned anything from all this? I wish I could be more sure.

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