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Ontario Minamata disease is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. It occurred in Ontario, Canada in 1970 and severely affected three First Nation communities following consumption of local fish that were contaminated with mercury. 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 Japan.
Source of the mercury pollution In 1962, Dryden Chemical Company began operating a chloralkali process plant in Dryden, Ontario 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 20000 pounds 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.
Grassy Narrows and White Dog First NationsIn the late 1960s, people in the 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.The Asabiinyashkosiwagong Nitam-Anishinaabeg or the "Grassy Narrows First Nation" and their downstream neighbours, the Wabaseemoong First Nation (then known as the "White Dog First Nation") 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.http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/on/ewr_e.html 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.http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/on/ewr_e.html 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.http://newsocialist.org/newsite/index.php?id=239 Chief Sakatcheway was the first leader of community when the treaty was signed and mainly wanted education for the community.Grassy Narrows land is being logged by Weyerhaeuser and Abitibi, which is opposed by the Grassy Narrows First Nation. Grassy Narrows members have non-violently protested the destruction of their lands, and staged a logging blockade towards the end of 2002, which has had many similarities to the civil disobedience and non-violent direct actions of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but of course with its Indigenous uniquenesses. On 2006 February 7, the Nation sent a cease and desist letter, saying "We are not consenting to the clear-cutting of our traditional lands, which is an assault on our culture, our way of life, and indeed our very existence."http://freegrassy.org/fileadmin/materials/old_growth/Documents/GrassyNarrowsLetterviaFacsimile.pdf The First Nations community has held an ongoing blockade for a few years, but staged a blockade that blocked Highway 17 on July 13, 2006.On September 8, 2007, Ontario announced that it had agreed to begin discussions with Grassy Narrows First Nation on forestry-related issues. The provincial government appointed former Federal Court of Canada Chief Justice Frank Iacobucci to lead these discussions. Iacobucci's discussions with Grassy Narrows will focus on, "sustainable forest management partnership models and other forestry-related matters, including harvesting methods, interim protection for traditional activities and economic development."http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/MNR/csb/news/2007/sep7nr_07.html
Sarnia First NationAamjiwnaang First Nation, also known as the "Chippewas of Sarnia First Nation," is located on the St. Clair River, 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.
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