TORONTO — The physical and mental health of people living in Grassy Narrows is "significantly worse" than other First Nations since mercury was dumped into a river system near the northern Ontario reserve half a century ago, a new health survey suggests.
The community commissioned the survey to examine the fallout of eating fish caught from nearby waterways contaminated by mercury. It found that there are fewer elders in the community, which the report suggests means that people are dying there prematurely.
"The results provide clear evidence that the physical and mental health of (Grassy Narrows community) members is poorer than that of other First Nation communities in Canada and Ontario," said the report. The health and well-being of the community "cannot be understood without taking into account their history of mercury poisoning and its consequences," it said.
It also found that 33 per cent of residents have lost a close friend or family member to suicide, which is five times the rate documented in other Ontario First Nations. Twenty eight per cent had attempted suicide — more than double the rate of other First Nations.
"If any of you have ever had a family member or a close friend who has committed suicide, you know the anguish that it creates for each and every one of us," said Donna Mergler, a mercury expert at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, who conducted the study.
Residents over the age of 50 who reported eating more fish as children also had experienced poorer success in school and are two times more likely to have an annual income of less than $20,000, she said.
More than 80 per cent of community members took part in the survey, which included a lengthy questionnaire administered to more than 300 adults in Grassy Narrows ranging in age from 18 to 80 between December 2016 and March 2017, Mergler said.
Community officials said Mergler's report is "the most comprehensive assessment of the health of the community to date" and included comparisons to First Nations regional health surveys done in 2008 and 2010.
Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle called the results of the survey "a very dark picture."
"But at the same time, our people are doing the best they can to live under the conditions they're living in," Turtle said.
Mercury contamination has plagued the English-Wabigoon River system since a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the river systems in the 1960s. The contamination closed a thriving commercial fishery that devastated Grassy Narrows' economy.
"Because of the discovery of mercury, things have come to a stop and, as a result, our people have suffered health-wise and also in terms of self-esteem," Turtle said. "When a person doesn't have a job, it leads to despair and many in our people have turned to alcohol."
The Ontario government has pledged to spend $85 million to remediate the river and the federal government has committed to funding a treatment centre that the community believes will cost about $4.5 million, but a feasibility study needs to be completed to determine the cost.
Turtle said the Ontario and federal governments need to do more to help the community, calling on them to implement the study's recommendations that include increased funding for physical and mental health programs, a long-term care facility on the reserve to address issues of mercury poisoning and programs for food security.
The report also said people who reported being diagnosed by a medical professional with mercury poisoning were almost six times more likely to have a neuropsychological disorder, five times more likely to have stomach and intestinal problems, and three times more likely to have blindness or vision problems.
"We need more (from the government) because it's been a devastation of a whole way of life, a whole way of culture that we need to rebuild," Judy Da Silva, the environmental health co-ordinator for Grassy Narrows.
"I don't want to appear the victim, because we're not, we're fighters. We are going to keep fighting, we're going to keep doing what we have to do to bring justice to our people."
In a statement Thursday, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said if her party forms government after the June 7 election, they will implement the recommendations of the report.
"Grassy Narrows is one of the clearest examples of how governments of all stripes have failed to treat First Nations with the respect they deserve," Horwath said.
Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press