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Ontario Minamata disease is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. It occurred in the Canadianmarker province of Ontariomarker in 1970 and severely affected two First Nation communities located in Northwestern Ontario following consumption of local fish that were contaminated with mercury and one First Nation in Southern Ontario due to illegal disposal of industrial chemical waste. The disease was named after Minamata disease because the symptoms were identical to the earlier cases of severe mercury poisoning that occurred in the city of Minamata in Japanmarker.

Source of the mercury pollution

Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations

In 1962, Dryden Chemical Company began operating a chloralkali process plant in Dryden, Ontariomarker using mercury cells. 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. Both companies were subsidiaries of the British multinational, Reed International.

Dryden Chemical Company discharged their effluent directly into the Wabigoon-English River system. 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 26th, 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. 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. 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.

Sarnia First Nation

Aamjiwnaang First Nationmarker, also known as the "Chippewas of Sarnia First Nation," is located on the St. Clair Rivermarker, affectionately called by the local population as "Chemical Valley." This First Nation is plagued by numerous chemical affective disorders, including mercury poisoning. Elders in the community recall collecting mercury from the local toxic waste dump by pouring water, then selling the collected mercury on the black market.

Health effects

Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations

In the late 1960s, people in the Grassy Narrowsmarker and Whitedogmarker First Nations populations started to suffer symptoms of mercury poisoning. Several Japanese doctors who had been involved in studying Minamata disease in Japan travelled to Canada to investigate the mercury poisoning in these people. Blood mercury levels were above 100 ppb in a significant number of individuals and above 200 ppb in several others. Symptoms included sensory disturbances, such as narrowing of the visual field, and impaired hearing, abnormal eye movements, tremor, ataxia (impaired balance), and dysarthria (poor articulation of speech).

Sarnia First Nation

Lawsuits and settlements

Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations

The Asabiinyashkosiwagong Nitam-Anishinaabegmarker 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. On March 26, 1982, Canada contributed $2.2 million to Wabaseemoong for economic development, social and educational programs. Wabaseemoong also signed a settlement with Ontario in January 1983. On July 27, 1984, Canada contributed $4.4 million to Grassy Narrows for economic development and social service development/planning.

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's English 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.

Nevertheless, the community members have seen little of this money, due to strings attached to its use, but also because of the bureaucratic red tape by the band councils. Similarly to other First Nations communities, the federal government's unilaterally imposed Indian Act governance system has rendered band council and its Chief and councilors paralyzed to do their best for their people.

Chief Sakatcheway was the first leader of community when the treaty was signed and mainly wanted education for the community.

Sarnia First Nation

See also

Further reading

  • Ningewance, Patricia M. "Summary of Mercury Intoxication: a Translation" in An Ojibwe Text Anthology, edited by John D. Nichols. The Centre for Research and Teaching of Canadian Native Languages, University of Western Onatrio (London, ON: 1988).

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