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Grassy Narrows First Nation appeals to international human rights commission over mercury contamination

July 10, 2024

IACHR hearing latest effort by the First Nation in Ontario to push governments to act

People are seen standing outside of an industrial plant carrying signs.
Protesters stand in front of the Dryden Paper Mill in June. Members of Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario have renewed calls to shut down the paper mill after a recent study found ongoing emissions are worsening toxins in the English-Wabigoon river system. (Submitted by David Sone)

CBC Indigenous: In its efforts to press the Ontario and federal governments to do more to address mercury contamination of its river, Grassy Narrows First Nation told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that many community members have “lost hope” and struggle to go to work and school.

During the virtual public hearing on Tuesday, members of Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek, known as Grassy Narrows First Nation, called for justice after decades of mercury poisoning.

Contamination of the English-Wabigoon River system dates back to the 1960s and ’70s, during which time the Dryden Paper Mill dumped an estimated nine tonnes of mercury into the water, affecting the Ojibway First Nations of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong Independent Nation.

The IACHR, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., addresses human rights conditions and violations in the Organization of American States (OAS). Canada is among 35 member states (countries) of the OAS.

Tuesday’s hearing was held during the IACHR’s 190th period of sessions that began Monday and run until July 19, both virtually and in person in Washington.

Grassy Narrows’s case points to potential human rights violations under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, relating to the First Nation’s ability to protect its culture, the health and well-being of its people, and its social and economic security.

People are seen wearing white jackets with red paint that says "shut it down." They are standing outside a paper mill.
People protest outside the Dryden Paper Mill in June in response to the mill dumping mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system decades ago. (Submitted by David Sone)

“Many [community members] have lost hope, to the point that they don’t even try to live a normal life as we know it, such as going to work or going to school,” Chief Rudy Turtle told the hearing. “They’ve lost their motivation to continue with their activities.”

While no decision was made at the hearing’s conclusion, the IACHR can make recommendations to the state involved — in this case, the provincial and federal governments — to make reparations and prevent future harms.

As well as Tuesday’s IACHR hearing, attended by Amnesty International and Canada as participating parties, Grassy Narrows’s other efforts on the mercury contamination issue have included: 

  • A protest outside the Dryden Paper Mill on June 20.
  • Filing a lawsuit against the Ontario and federal governments on June 4, arguing the governments have violated their duties under Treaty 3 by failing to protect against or remedy the effects of mercury contamination.
  • Chief Rudy Turtle calling for action after a study on methylmercury that was released by Western University on May 23 found continued industrial emissions are increasing the amount of toxins in the river system.

CBC News has reached out to Dryden Fibre Canada, which acquired the paper mill last year, and the story will be updated with any response.

Canada defends efforts to remediate mercury

About 90 per cent of the Grassy Narrows population of roughly 1,000 people, including Turtle, experience symptoms of mercury poisoning from consuming fish from the river. 

Constantine Tikhonov has spent over 20 years in the environmental public health division of what is now Indigenous Services Canada. Representing the state of Canada during the IACHR hearing, he discussed the history of Ottawa’s efforts on the mercury contamination front.

Study shows ongoing pollution at Grassy Narrows First Nation

WATCH | Study shows ongoing pollution at Grassy Narrows First Nation: 2 months ago, Duration 2:20

The Grassy Narrows First Nation has long suffered the effects of mercury pollution in its water but a new study shows effluent from a nearby pulp mill is exacerbating the problem with further contaminants.

Click on the following link to view the video:

Tikhonov noted the settlement reached with Ontario the federal government in the 1980s that led to the creation of the Mercury Disability Board and Mercury Disability Fund, and the province’s English and Wabigoon Rivers Remediation Funding Act, which formalized funding for mercury remediation led by Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

There is also the long-awaited Mercury Care Home, construction on which is expected to start this summer and take two to three years to complete, and a new complementary health-care facility, which broke ground last year.

The federal government has also committed to support the construction of a new water treatment plant, Tikhonov said.

“Indigenous Services Canada takes very seriously the issue of residual contamination of surface water sources and its impacts on Indigenous communities,” he said.

“Canada will continue to work with [Grassy Narrows] to understand and address mercury contamination and the longer-term impacts of exposure, including working with the province of Ontario at the direction of the community to meet their health services and treatment goals in order to protect the health and safety of the Indigenous people.”

While Tikhonov said mercury levels in river fish have declined since the community’s initial exposure, the most recent findings from Western University suggest methylmercury — an even more toxic compound in the river system — is more dangerous.

‘People’s hearts are on the ground’

Judy Da Silva, environmental health co-ordinator for Grassy Narrows, is also affected by mercury poisoning. What concerns her the most is the impact on young people’s mental health.

“One of the things that’s really heartbreaking is the youth suicide,” Da Silva said. “I’ve had four suicides in my family, my immediate family, and it’s been horrific.”

While medical coverage is provided to those experiencing mercury poisoning, “at the base of this medical cost is racism we face at the hospitals, at the medical stations and how we are treated inhumanely,” she said.

Grassy Narrows lawsuit targets ‘environmental racism’ of mercury poisoning

WATCH | Judy Da Silva discusses ‘environmental racism’: 1 month ago, Duration 2:13

Judy Da Silva, environmental health co-ordinator for Grassy Narrows First Nation, says years of inaction and ‘environmental racism’ are behind the lawsuit against Ontario and Ottawa.

Click on the following link to view the video:

Adrienne Telford, a lawyer with Cavalluzzo LLP who represents Grassy Narrows in its litigation against the provincial and federal governments, called the Mercury Care Home a “Band-Aid measure to provide basic health-care services to a vulnerable community that is in desperate need and that has woefully inadequate access to health-care services.”

“These are commitments made by the Crown in 2017, so seven years ago, in relation to an environmental and human rights catastrophe that started over 60 years ago … the river still isn’t cleaned up,” Telford said.

‘Action still needs to be taken’

Tikhonov said it’s important for First Nations community members, like Da Silva, to work alongside scientists to conduct research and develop community-based solutions, such as through the First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program.

As far as cleaning up the river system, he said, scientists and the province must take time “to really figure out how to do it safely, because the risk of doing it in the wrong way would be volatilizing mercury that has been sequestered in the sediments.”

“The government of Canada continues to work with and support [Grassy Narrows] and other Indigenous Peoples by responding to new health science data and information, improving service delivery, and gradually transitioning toward more First Nations-led health-care services.”

Arif Bulkan, a commissioner with the IACHR, said while he recognizes the need to approach the river cleanup with caution, “action still needs to be taken — and action that also includes not just Band-Aid, to use the word of the council, but that is preventative.”

While Grassy Narrows moves ahead with litigation, he said, more direct dialogue between the community and provincial and federal governments may help facilitate a resolution.

“All of this has to be considered in the context of international human rights standards.”


Sarah Law, Reporter

Sarah Law is a CBC News reporter based in Thunder Bay, Ont., and has also worked for newspapers and online publications elsewhere in the province. Have a story tip? You can reach her at