Why the people of Grassy Narrows are still eating the fish

Research shows that fish in the area are contaminated with mercury, which can cause serious health problems in people who eat them — so why have they remained a staple of the local diet?
By Jon Thompson - Published on December 17, 2018
a woman by a fire
Grassy Narrows elder Judy Da Silva says that fish has always played a vital role in Anishinaabek natal traditions. (Jon Thompson)

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GRASSY NARROWS — Recent reports have raised alarm over the impact of mercury poisoning on those who eat fish from the lakes and rivers surrounding Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation), located 80 kilometres north of Kenora — but despite the risks, many residents continue to eat the fish: there are simply too few other options for food.

 

Between 1962 and ’70, the Dryden Mill, then owned by Reed Paper, dumped effluent into the Wabigoon-English river system, contaminating it with nearly 10 tonnes of methylmercury, a powerful neurotoxin.

 

After provincial tests released in 1970 revealed serious environmental damage, Ontario outlawed local commercial fishing, which was Grassy Narrows’ primary industry. Fishing — mainly of walleye — was also the community’s primary source of food.

 

Recent studies have demonstrated the ongoing, inter-generational effects of mercury poisoning on Grassy Narrows members: new research by Donna Mergler, a professor and mercury expert at Université du Québec à Montréal, shows that local children whose mothers had eaten fish while pregnant were four times more likely to experience nerve disorders or learning disabilities than those whose mothers had not. Families of those whose fathers or grandfathers were fishers or guides have been disproportionately affected.

 

This follows a report she released in February, in which she analyzed umbilical-cord blood tests that Health Canada conducted between 1970 and 1992 on babies born to Grassy Narrows mothers. Results showed high mercury levels, which are known to be contributing factors in the development of certain physical and mental-health disorders.

 

But neither Chrissy Isaacs, now 39, nor her mother knew about the tests until decades later — the government didn’t release the data for analysis until 2016. In February, Isaacs, a resident of Grassy Narrows, learned that she’d been born with a blood mercury level double the reference value set by Health Canada.

 

“I was in shock. I was born with mercury? All these years we were being lied to, saying it goes away,” she says. “Why were we being lied to, being brushed aside all these years, them knowing we were babies born with mercury?” Isaacs says. “Still, to this day, they won’t acknowledge that people in Grassy are sick.”

 

After the 1970 tests, George Kerr, the minister for energy and natural-resource management, estimated that it would take 12 weeks for mercury levels in local fish to decline (although scientific reports estimated that recovery would take decades). As late as 1997, visiting Health Canada officials told Grassy Narrows residents that hair-sample studies the agency had conducted showed that the mercury had cleared from the river system. Commercial fishing, however, was still prohibited. Successive Grassy Narrows chiefs argued that this constituted a double standard: If it wasn’t safe to sell the fish, then how could it be safe to eat them?

 

“The messages they were getting from the government were very mixed,” Mergler says. “Put yourself in the situation where you have always lived on fish. The government that has poisoned you is telling you not to eat the fish, but you don’t see anything wrong with the fish, necessarily. Even in the ’70s and the ’80s, ‘Maybe you can eat some of the fish. You can eat a bit less fish.’ Other people were saying, ‘Yes, you can eat the fish.’ What they’ve been told has not been consistent over time.”

 

Grassy Narrows elder Judy Da Silva says that fish has always played a vital role in Anishinaabek natal traditions.

“The grandmothers used to say, ‘Eat fish broth, and the breast milk will come out.’ That’s how important fish was to a woman’s body,” Da Silva explains. “You’re told, when you’re pregnant, ‘Eat fish liver or different parts of the fish that are healthier.’ That was the damage, too, because the women knew they had to eat fish when they were pregnant — and then it hurt us. It’s sad, but the grandmothers at the time didn’t know the fish were contaminated.”

 

The First Nation hired independent scientists to conduct mercury tests on 20 local lakes. Analyses of the results have yet to be completed. In the meantime, residents continue to fish. Grassy Narrows councillor Alana Pahpasay says that between limited transportation, extreme poverty, and a dearth of available food options at the local store, many have no choice but to eat from the lakes — which have sustained them for millennia.

 

“There are other lakes we can go to where it’s not contaminated, but a lot of our people don’t have their own vehicles or boats, so a lot of people do fish down on the shoreline. They’re not going to stop. That’s our way of life,” Pahpasay says. “It’s how hockey is in Canada. People get concussions and brain injuries and whatnot. Are we telling them to stop playing hockey?”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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