Wednesday, 4 July 2018

CREEPS XII Poisoning native reservations 

It’s difficult to imagine a human right more basic than access to air and water that is safe to breathe and drink.  Our very lives and well-being depend on these fundamental rights. Without either of them, we will die.  When we breathe contaminated air or drink polluted water we can get very sick.  In the case of polluted air, it can cause certain kinds of cancer, asthma and other respiratory problems, and hormone disruption. Lack of access to safe water can cause cancer and other illnesses, diarrhea, skin infections, and increased rates of pneumonia, whooping cough, and influenza.

Drinking water advisories have been a persistent injustice in  First (Native) Nations throughout Canada. Currently, more than  one hundred native communities go without clean drinking water. Many have faced these conditions for years, or even decades.

After years of pressure from Indigenous (Native) and social justice organizations, the federal government of Canada has been committed to ending all longterm drinking water advisories by 2021.  In response, the David Suzuki  Foundation  has  begun monitoring progress on resolving First Nations drinking water advisories. Its first report released in February 2017 in partnership with the Council of Canadians  have concluded  that although work to end what  had begun, the federal government was not on track to fulfil its commitment. Assessments from this year’s report are similar.

Standing alongside Indigenous leaders and advocates, David Suzuki broke down while issuing a call for justice on behalf of mercury poisoned Grassy Narrows First Nation Reservation after decades of government inaction and new promises by the government to clean the river running through the Reservation of contamination. 

The mercury poisoning began in the 1960s, when a pulp and paper mill in Dryden dumped ten tons of mercury into the Wabigoon River which is a vital resource for both Grassy Narrows and nearby Whitedog First Nation. The Toronto Star (Canada`s largest newspaper) has previously reported on governments’ failure to take action, despite years of reports from community members and a statement from a former mill worker about mercury contamination upstream from Grassy Narrows.

Mercury has absolutely no value to the human body and is best thought of as a poison. The effects of mercury exposure vary depending on the form and level of exposure. Acute exposure to mercury vapor can produce serious effects on the nervous system including psychotic reactions, hallucinations, suicidal tendencies and delirium.

Obviously, no one deliberately drinks it but very minute drops of mercury in a water supply such as a river over a period of time will cause the problems stated in the previous paragraph to those people who are the victims of this kind of poisoning.

How did this happen? A former employee (Mr. Glowaki) of the paper mill in Dryden, Ontario wrote a letter to the Toronto Star describing what he says was a hidden dump of dozens of mercury barrels that could be the source of on-going health concerns downstream at Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Glowacki says in his letter that he worked at Dryden Chemicals Ltd, which was a subsidiary of the British multinational, Reed International company. The company he worked in had used mercury  cells mixed with sodium chloride  electrolysis  for the purpose of making caustic soda and chlorine for bleaching paper so the paper would be white.  

He said that he worked in the plant in 1972 as a labourer and part of his job was to place more than 50 barrels comprising of a mixture of mercury and salt in a nearby pit.

Now we all know that over a period of years, metal can disintegrate and as a result of the disintegration of the metal barrels containing the mercury and salt, that substance began leaking through the ground until it reached the river running through the Reservation. 

I have to presume that the owners of the plant were cognizant of the fact that the pit was close to the river and that the river flowed through the Reservation.

Did the owners of the company care that the mixture of mercury and salt would eventually end up in the river? Do animals care where they shit?  There is the answer to the first question.

The ownership of the mill changed several times. Ownership was transferred from Weyerhaeuser to Domtar (its present owner).  On April 2, 2009, Domtar Corporation announced that it would idle its Dryden pulp making mills for approximately ten weeks starting April 25, 2009 due to the lack of global demand for pulp. As a result, 230 workers had been off work since the mill closed. However, mill employees working in Dryden began slowly returning to work at Domtar's pulp mill in July 2009

Although Domtar didn’t create the problem; what is Domtar doing about this problem? I can’t find anything in the Internet showing that Domtar is contributing anything towards fixing this problem.

After decades of lobbying, with the inclusion of international doctors and researchers, and successful River Run demonstrations here in Toronto, it seems like both levels of government (Federal and Provincial) are finally willing to own up to their role in the failure to prevent this disaster and most importantly to clean up the toxic water and soil of Grassy Narrows, which has permanently damaged bodies and minds of its inhabitants.

Whatever costs are involved, both governments should go after all the owners who created the problem and later ignored the problem.

The provincial government whose leader, Kathleen Wynne, was at one point the go-to public official when it came to lobbying the provincial government to radically (or at least subtly) direct the course of Indigenous-government relations.

Unfortunately, the province of Ontario’s co-operation in helping to clean up the chemical damage around Grassy Narrows was not an easy deal to secure. Fish from the English-Wabigoon River System has up to 150 times the safe daily dose of mercury, but a wholesale clean-up could end the damage caused decades ago when the pulp and paper industry dumped heavy metals into the river system.  Unfortunately, no political party seemed to really care. After all, the water they drink is clean and is not polluted with mercury and salt. Monkey no see, monkey no hear, monkey no taste, monkey no care.

The NDP, while paying lip service to the cause of Grassy Narrows, provided a much better critique of the Liberals but a big unknown if they ever found themselves in the seat of power. It will be interesting to see if Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative party will do what the other premiers didn’t do.

Members of the Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations have every right to be wary of government promises. The previous Ontario government was not unlike the deadbeat who benefits from what it is given but doesn’t want to pay back what it owes.

The politicians weren’t smart enough to realize that by not having tried to correct this problem earlier, it will cost the taxpayers millions of dollars later in medical expenses caring for those unfortunate natives who are suffering from the effects emanating from their poisoned rivers and soil.

As with most politicians, the difficulty is in finding a premier and a political party willing to use the money they receive from our taxes and do a cleanup, and not with half-measures. My answer to that problem is that the governments can go after the owners of the paper mill. What? They are afraid to do that? Hey scaredy-cats. We have courts. Use them.

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