Former First Nations chief on hunger strike over mercury contamination

'I'm dying anyway, one piece at a time' said Steve Fobister, who suffers from disabilities caused by mercury poisoning

First Nations Chiefs Patrick Wedaseh Madahbee, Stand Beardy, Chief Robert Fobister Sr. and Ogichidaa Warren White speak at a press conference on July 28 in Toronto. Steve Fobister, not pictured, has gone on hunger strike demanding the Canadian government take action.

Demanding justice from the Canadian government over mercury contamination of a river, former Grassy Narrows Chief Steve Fobister began a hunger strike on Tuesday. The Canadian tribe is asking the government to apologize for the mercury poisoning, provide better compensation for victims and clean up the river. 

The mercury contamination stems from a paper company that dumped more than 10 tons of waste into the Wabigoon/English River system, located near the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario, between 1962 and 1970. The paper company contaminated the main source of fish — which was a dietary staple — for both Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabesemoong Independent Nations, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported. 

"I'm dying anyway, one piece at a time," Fobister, who suffers from disabilities caused by mercury poisoning, said at a news conference Monday. 

Mercury can have “toxic effects” on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as on the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes, according to the World Health Organization, which also states that exposure to mercury in “even small amounts” can cause “serious health problems and present the threat to the development of a child in utero and early in life.”

Grassy Narrows First Nation, an indigenous group of about 1,500 people, said the Canadian government did not act on the findings of a 2009 report conducted by the Mercury Disability board or address the grievances of victims of the contamination. The government commissioned the report.

Part of the report states that “science cannot yet say how long the poisonous mercury will last in affected waters, but it could be several decades” and added that “this toxin remains a serious health threat.”

The Canadian government’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, David Zimmer, said that he met with Fobister on Sunday to hear his concerns and said he acknowledged “the profound suffering of the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation, including Steve Fobister, as a result of the mercury contamination.” 

Zimmer said he would work with his fellow ministers to “determine how best to help those with mercury-related health issues.” 

Meanwhile, the Grassy Narrows First Nation is also fighting a 10-year forest management plan by the Canadian government that would include clear-cutting large swaths of Grassy Narrows territory. 

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