Mercury Poisoning in the Grassy Narrows First Nation

Mercury Poisoning in the Grassy Narrows First Nation

The below is a research paper I authored while attending engineering at the U of M.  I am posting it for the general public to have access to information on Grassy Narrows all in one place.

The Ongoing Impact of Mercury Poisoning in the Community


In 1873, the sovereign Ojibway nation known today as the Grassy Narrows First Nation signed Treaty 3 with the Government of Canada. The signing of Treaty 3 resulted in the Grassy Narrows First Nations giving up ownership of their traditional lands for treaty rights allowing for the harvesting of both reserve and non-reserve lands. Specifically, non-reserve lands in their traditional territory could be used for harvesting until the lands were authorized for use by government.  In 1912, the Ontario Boundaries Extension Act, SC 1912 annexed land known as the Keewatin area and within the traditional territory of Grassy Narrows First Nation to the Province of Ontario. (Thibodeau, 2015)

The decision to annex lands near the Grassy Narrows First Nation has resulted in the expansion of industry, specifically logging and pulp and paper, and the subsequent environmental contamination of an entire ecosystem with methylmercury.  (Manko, Len, author, 2014, p. 12) However, the circumstances of Grassy Narrows have been compounded by the neglect of both the Provincial Government of Ontario, and the Government of Canada to their responsibilities for assigned treaty rights.  The community of Grassy Narrows has been showing the effects of mercury poisoning since 1970, and to date clean up of the affected areas has not yet taken place.  The degree of neglect and environmental racism shown toward the members of this community point toward a form of genocide carried out by both levels of government. (“New generation suffering mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows, Ont,” 2016)


Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (also known as Grassy Narrows First Nation) is located northeast of Kenora, Ontario. The First Nation occupies a land area of 4145 ha referred to as the English River 21 Indian Reserve.  This tract of land along the Wabigoon-English River was selected by the community as a result of the signing of Treaty 3 with the Canadian government. Treaty 3 allowed for a traditional lifestyle to continue.  Each family could hunt, fish, and trap while maintaining traditional cultural practices.  These practices included agricultural practices along the river system such as the harvesting of wild rice.  As a result, the community was able to find gainful employment through hunting, fishing, trapping, guiding and tourist related industries.

However, the annexation of traditional lands by the Province of Ontario in 1912 began a chain of events which has led to the ongoing destruction of critical ecosystems along the Wabigoon-English River. (Thibodeau, 2015) In 1950, the Province of Ontario expanded into traditional areas for the construction of hydroelectric dam projects.  The community was forced to relocate, and surrounding areas were flooded for the project.

In 1962, the Province of Ontario allowed Reed International to begin operations in Dryden. Ont.  These operations were undertaken by the Dryden Chemical Company, and the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company.  The Dryden Chemical Company operated a chloralkali process plant using mercury to produce large quantities of sodium hydroxide and chlorine.  These chemical byproducts were then used at the Pulp and Paper company to bleach paper. (Ontario Minamata disease, 2017, June 25) Without any environmental oversight, the company discharged their mercury-laden wastewater directly into the river system.  Approximately 9,000 kg of mercury was initially released into the environment between 1962 and 1970.

Ontario Minamata Disease

Minamata disease is a term used to describe significant mercury poisoning in people.  The first major incidence of methylmercury poisoning occurred in Minamata, Japan between 1953 and 1965.  Through industrial processes, methylmercury contaminated waters were released into the Minamata Bay.  The contamination of the bay resulted in over 1000 deaths, as the human population ate fish contaminated, and used water containing the mercury compounds.  (Manko, Len, author, 2014, p. 9) Today, Japanese researchers continue to lead the way in detailed testing of affected populations across the world including Canada.

In 1970, scientists reported that fish in many lakes across Manitoba, and Ontario had tested positive for methylmercury, and this included the Wabigoon-English River systems. (Ontario Minamata disease, 2017, June 25) During this time, the federal government informed the commercial fishermen and lodge owners along these river systems that the fish were unsafe for both human and wildlife consumption due to mercury contamination. (Manko, Len, author, 2014, p. 8) As more residents of the Grassy Narrows First Nation began to show symptoms of mercury poisoning, Japanese researchers travelled to Canada to investigate. The results of their investigation indicated that the people of the Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations were suffering from the same symptoms of mercury poisoning that residents of Minamata, Japan experienced. (Takaoka, S., Fujino, T., Hotta, N., Ueda, K., Hanada, M., Tajiri, M., & Inoue, Y., 2014, p. 950)

As taken from Mercury in the food chain, a Government of Canada publication (2017):

Methylmercury, which is absorbed into the body about six times more easily than inorganic mercury, can migrate through cells which normally form a barrier to toxins. It can cross the blood-brain and placental barriers, allowing it to react directly with brain and fetal cells. Mercury contamination causes a wide range of symptoms in organisms, and affects the kidneys and neurological systems. While low levels may not be directly lethal for individual organisms, toxicological effects like impaired reproduction, growth, neuro-development, and learning ability, in addition to behavioral changes, can lead to increases in mortality and the risk of predation for some wildlife.”   

Neglect and Evidence of Environmental Racism

On March 26th, 1970, the Ontario government ordered the Dryden Chemical Company to stop all dumping of mercury into the rivers systems.  However, the Province did not follow up with restrictions on airborne emissions, or fully monitor dumping sites at the mill.  Airborne emissions continued without restriction until October 1975. (Ontario Minamata disease, 2017, June 25) Recent evidence indicates that the Province of Ontario knew that dump sites utilized in the 1970’s at the Dryden mill site were leaking. (Grassy Narrows First Nation demands action after mercury dump site revelation, 2016, June 21)

Mercury contamination of the river systems collapsed the local economies of the Grassy Narrows First Nation and surrounding communities.  The commercial fishery was closed down, lodges related to the tourism industry were eliminated, and a traditional way of life that include hunting and fishing for subsistence was destroyed.  Despite the collapse of industry and employment, the Grassy Narrows First Nation and neighbors were not compensated for the economic impacts until 1982, through legal action and its subsequent settlement.  This led to the Grassy Narrows and Islington Indian Bands Mercury Contamination Settlement Act in 1986. (Ontario Minamata disease, 2017, June 25) During this sixteen year period, affected residents continued to deal with the economic, social and health impacts of the contamination without compensation.   This settlement provided 16.67 million in compensation as a one-time payment and was to be administered by the Mercury Disability Board. The settlement was provided by the Government of Canada, Province of Ontario, Great Lakes Forest Products and Reed Limited. (Manko, Len, author, 2014, p. 19)

The establishment of the Mercury Disability Board in 1986 should have been an indicator to both Canadian researchers and Canadian doctors that detailed analysis of the impacts to both wildlife and human health need to be closely monitored.  However, invitations by Japanese experts for collaborative work with Canadian researchers have not been accepted.  (Grassy Narrows: Why is Japan still studying the mercury poisoning when Canada isn’t? 2014, September 2) Japanese experts in mercury contamination have been sounding the alarm on long-term effects on multiple generations of the residents of Grassy Narrows, but very few people within the Canadian medical profession and researchers are listening.  CBC has produced numerous investigative reports since 1975 on the environmental and humanitarian disaster in the Grassy Narrows First Nation but very little of this reporting has moved either government or industry to act.

In September of 2016, Dr. Masanori Hanada’s Japanese research team released new research that shows more than 90% of the population at Grassy Narrows and neighboring downstream First Nations are showing signs of mercury poisoning.  This includes members of the population not yet born when the initial release occurred. This would only occur if the mercury contamination were still occurring. (New generation suffering mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows, Ont. 2016, September 20) These results demonstrate that both the Province of Ontario and Government of Canada have failed to prevent ongoing contamination of the river systems, neglect their own threshold requirements for remediation of the impacted soils. Recent media reports have provided evidence that the Province of Ontario has been aware of the physical contamination of soils at the original mill site in Dryden, and that there has been visible confirmation of mercury pooling on the soil at these dump site since 1990. (Ontario knew about mercury contamination near Grassy Narrows in 1990: report. 2017, November 12) The confidential report by True Grit Consulting cited in the CBC media reports also recommend that further investigation is needed to determine exactly where the source contamination is on the old mill site, and how it is leaching into the Wabigoon-English River systems.

Forty-seven years after the initial mercury contamination was discovered in the Wabigoon-English River systems, the Ontario government announced that it would commit $85 million dollars to the clean up of the mill sites.  To date, there has been no additional funds allocated to the development of intensive health care, and mental health supports required by affected residents.  As noted earlier, more than 90% of the population in Grassy Narrows and the White Dog First Nations show symptoms of mercury poisoning.  Less than 30% of those populations receive compensation through the Mercury Disability Board.  Those that do see some form of disability compensation receive between $250 and $880 per month. (Manko, Len, author, 2014, p. 19


The circumstances of the Grassy Narrows First Nation have demonstrated the neglect of treaty rights under Treaty 3 by both the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada. With the establishment of the Ontario Boundaries Extension Act, SC 1912, the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation were left in a legal limbo between both levels of government.  Each have tried to pass on the responsibility for the health, environmental stewardship, and economic development to the other.  However, both levels of government had a duty to truly consult with the Grassy Narrows First Nation regarding the expansion of industry into traditional lands even if they were non-reserve.  With the subjugation of treaty rights by both levels of government, both have a liability to provide compensation for environmental clean up and remediation, health support and ongoing monitoring, and economic development initiatives due to the loss of traditional industry within the community.

The neglect of this community on this scale does represent both a form of environmental racism and discriminatory behaviour on the part of all Canadians.  The situation in Grassy Narrows is catastrophic, and is now moving into the third generation of poisoning.  Each day, Canadians are presented with media reports on various forms of social injustice at home and across the globe.  Protestors will organize and march for their right to use any variation of gender pronouns, or decry various levels of perceived fascism in various political figures, but ordinary Canadians do not march for Grassy Narrows.  Instead, the people of Grassy Narrows find their most vocal support in the form of a team of dedicated Japanese researchers. 90% of these community members suffer with a painful and debilitating disease, their lives are cut short, and the psychological impacts of seeing your community suffer and die in silence are destroying an entire people. It has taken the Ontario government over 47 years to act, and the federal government still has not figured out what their responsibilities are.

One of the more troubling aspects of the Grassy Narrows contamination is the continued lack of interest showed by both Canadian medical professionals and researchers.  To date, not a single case of Minamata disease has been acknowledged by a Canadian official. (Grassy Narrows: Why is Japan still studying the mercury poisoning when Canada isn’t? 2014, September 2) Is this simply a case of indifference or an intentional act of depopulation?

However, the continued indifference of ordinary, non-Aboriginal Canadians to this situation must change.  Dr. Hanada was quoted as saying “mercury does not discriminate”. The unabated leaching of mercury into these river systems, will lead to additional contamination in non-Aboriginal communities.  Testing has shown that groundwater sources were contaminated with high levels of methylmercury.  Water finds a way to move in every direction, and the continued pollution of waterways will see an increase in contamination of more fish, birds and wildlife.  It is likely that the non-Aboriginal residents of both Dryden and Kenora have already seen exposures to mercury.  Our ecosystems are linked, and they do not end at the boundary of the reserve.  As a result, impacts felt in one ecosystem will eventually be felt in others.

As Canadians, both new and old, there is the expectation that all citizens will be treated fairly and equitably under the law.  We cannot expect other forms of discrimination to diminish unless we first address the systemic discrimination of Aboriginal peoples. Truth and Reconciliation are only words without meaning unless we as Canadians force our governments to respect both Aboriginal title, and treaty rights.  And, that can begin by seeing and acknowledging the humanitarian crisis and ecological disaster that has faced the Grassy Narrows First Nation for the last 47 years.


Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation. (2017, November 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:11, November 14, 2017, from

Grassy Narrows First Nation demands action after mercury dump site revelation. (2016, June 21). Retrieved from

Grassy Narrows loses Supreme Court logging rights decision. (2014, July 11). Retrieved from

Grassy Narrows: Why is Japan still studying the mercury poisoning when Canada isn’t? (2014, September 2). Retrieved from

Manko, Len, author. (2014). The Grassy Narrows & Islington Band Mercury Disability Board: A historical report 1986-2001: a condensed version.

Mercury in the food chain. (n.d.). Retrieved from Government of Canada website:

New generation suffering mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows, Ont. (2016, September 20). Retrieved from

Ontario knew about mercury contamination near Grassy Narrows in 1990: report. (2017, November 12). Retrieved from

Ontario Minamata disease. (2017, June 25). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved November 15, 2017, from

Takaoka, S., Fujino, T., Hotta, N., Ueda, K., Hanada, M., Tajiri, M., & Inoue, Y. (2014). Signs and symptoms of methylmercury contamination in a First Nations community in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. Science of The Total Environment, 468-469, 950-957. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2013.09.015

Thibodeau, M. (2015, September 15). CanLII Connects. Retrieved from

Wong, H. G. (2017). Mercury poisoning in the Grassy Narrows First Nation: history not completed. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 189(22), E784-E784. doi:10.1503/cmaj.733011


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