Japan mercury poisoning survivors boost First Nation’s compensation push

Experts from Minamata check for signs of illnesses in Ontario after officials vow to reconsider increased compensation

Mercury poisoning survivors and experts from Minamata, Japan — the site of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters — have arrived in Ontario to help assess the impact of a similar contamination on First Nation people there, a month after a hunger-striking chief prompted the provincial government to re-examine its compensation policy.

Steve Fobister, an elder and former head of the Grassy Narrows band located in a remote area of northwestern Ontario, began his action on July 29 over perceived government inaction over demands that aboriginal people receive full recompense from the Canadian government and companies responsible for pollution on their land.

Elders of the band argue that many Grassy Narrows members showed symptoms of mercury poisoning stemming from historic contamination of local water systems, but were not recognized by the government — and, therefore, did not receive compensation. It is hoped that the Japanese delegation will be able to use their expertise to help provide further evidence to prove the scale of the poisoning.

The same day Fobister began his hunger strike, Ontario Minister of Aboriginal Affairs David Zimmer agreed to review official policy.

"One way that my fellow ministers and I will work with Grassy Narrows First Nation is to champion a review of the Mercury Disability Board, to determine how best to help those with mercury-related health issues," Zimmer said in a statement on July 29. Zimmer also personally visited the community of Grassy Narrows earlier this month. 

To receive compensation, the band needs data showing how many of its members suffered illness as a result of mercury contamination. In the 1960s, a chemical and pulp mill dumped nearly 10 tons of mercury into the English River system on Grassy Narrows’ territory. The mercury worked its way through the ecosystem and contaminated fish and other wildlife that the aboriginal group relies on for food and livelihood.

“We are a land-based people,” said Grassy Narrows member Judy Da Silva during a press conference in Kenora, Ontario on Friday. “We eat food from the land and we will not stop that.” 

The contamination at Grassy Narrows is eerily similar to that of the Japanese fishing town of Minimata, where some 27 tons of mercury were dumped into the bay over a period of nearly four decades.

Hundreds of people died from resulting mercury poisoning. Those who survived showed symptoms nobody fully understood at the time, including numbness of the limbs, blindness, smell and hearing impairments, loss of equilibrium and paralysis. The sickness from severe mercury poisoning became known as Minimata Disease.

The lead doctor of the Japanese delegation from Minamata said Friday that mercury pollution is ongoing in Ontario, and is reminiscent of symptoms he has seen in Japan.

“We have discovered many patients who have very similar or the same symptoms as the Minamata Disease victims in Japan,” said Dr. Masanori Harada, director of the Centre for Minamata Studies, during the conference.

Waiting for compensation

The Japanese team's work in Ontario began decades ago, when the late Dr. Masazumi Harada, who worked with victims in Minamata, began visiting Ontario in 1975 after hearing about the contamination.

Masanori Harada, following in his footsteps, has led several delegations of Japanese researchers — doctors, sociologists, and environmental scientists – in recent years to investigate the effects of mercury poisoning on aboriginal communities in Ontario. The team wants to assess First Nations communities for signs of the poisoning, hoping that it will spur the Canadian government to adequately compensate victims. 

“We have concluded that this is the third Minamata Disease happening in the world — the first was in Minamata, then in Niigata Prefecture, and now in Canada,” said Harada. “It is clear in our mind that these symptoms we see in Ontario are caused by the mercury poisoning of the river system here which happened some decades ago and is still continuing.”

Hideki Sato, a mercury poisoning victim and director of the Minamata Disease Victims’ Mutual Aid Society, traveled with the Japanese team to meet members of the Grassy Narrows band. The 59-year-old citrus farmer said that he and his wife both suffer from the effects of the mercury poisoning.

“My physical agony includes constant cramps and dizziness and ear ringing and pains all over my body,” said Sato. “I also have involuntary muscle twitching that results in my dropping the scissors I use for harvesting fruit. You can imagine is not a nice thing to happen. I also stumble on flat surfaces, and both of my parents and my grandmother were recognized patients.” 

Grassy Narrows Chief Roger Fobister said the band’s relationship with the Japanese experts is essential for keeping up to date with the latest research on Minamata Disease.

“We have to do this because the mercury pollution is still in our river system and has never been cleaned up,” Fobister said at the conference. “As long as mercury pollution still affects our rivers, the mercury sickness or Minamata Disease will continue among Grassy Narrows people.”

In previous reports on Grassy Narrows, Harada has said that only one-quarter of those he had diagnosed as Minamata Disease victims were approved for compensation by the government, Canadian news website CBC reported. The compensation agreement was reached between the band, Ontario, and federal governments in 1985 and payments were subsequently dispensed.

Fobister said he hopes the data collected by the Japanese will spur the Canadian government to compensate all victims of the disease.

“We will start with a review of the Mercury Disability Health Board that talks about the criteria used by the board to compensate our community members and we will work to update the material used by the Board," he said.

Craig Benjamin, campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples for Amnesty International, Canada, traveled to Grassy Narrows to act as an observer to the Japanese delegation's work.

“We’ve been following Grassy Narrows for almost a decade now — we became involved because of their fight against clear-cut logging, which can lead to new mercury releases into the environment,” Benjamin told Al Jazeera. “Not a lot is being done to address a really profound health crisis … the rights of people there aren’t even being considered.”

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