An author from the UK is shining a light on the poisoning of Grassy Narrows First Nation members over the last fifty years, with a new novel aimed to bring the story to youth.
Author Jane Thomas explains she first learned about the history of Grassy Narrows First Nation through Rochelle Lamm, who she had met while working in the Caribbean. Rochelle had asked Thomas to help create a children’s book as part of the community’s ongoing Mercury Tragedy Project.
“Everything she told me was so fascinating. The stories about Barney Lamm...he was obsessed with flying. He saved up as a young boy and managed to buy a plane. She had me hooked. And then she told me about the mercury poisoning. It was unbelievable. I had never heard of it. It was overwhelming.”
Lamm is the daughter of Barney and Marion Lamm, who were key leaders in the fight for mercury poisoning clean-up work and compensation efforts against the government. Barney and Marion also play the great-grandparent characters in the story.
Thomas says the middle-grade adventure story follows Lizzie and Bobby as they uncover truth about one of their great-grandparents’ past, laced with dangerous secrets.
“It’s written as an adventure story. They have a reason to go to Canada. They’re exploring the past of one of the protagonists families and they find all of this," said Thomas.
"The facts and information is woven into the story. It’s an adventure story dotted with facts, and at the end, I’ve clarified which bits are true and which bits are fictional. So kids understand that everything with the mercury crisis is absolutely true," she adds.
Thomas explains the creation of the book was overseen by former Chiefs and community members of Grassy Narrows, who read and reviewed the book for accuracy, culture and authenticity. She hopes she can help bring the story to as many youth in the area, and around the world, as possible.
“A former Chief read it and they had said it reminded them of like pre-mercury. That’s what I tried to thread in. The differences that were there. The life that was once lived by the people of Grassy and the life that they live now.”
Silver River Shadow launches as an e-book and a paper-book with illustrations in most major bookstores, local bookstores and online stores on August 8, 2022. Thomas says she plans to visit the community as soon as she’s able to.
In 2020, both Wabaseemoong and Grassy Narrows signed agreements with Ottawa and Indigenous Services Canada to build multi-million, state-of-the-art, 24-bed treatment centres for those suffering from mercury poisoning, with the use of chelation therapy.
But you can argue those treatment centres are at least 50 years too late.
The poisoning of the English and Wabigoon River systems began in the 1960’s when the Reed Paper Company had dumped an estimated 9 to 11 tonnes of mercury into the water system, as they used mercury in the process of bleaching paper.
Their operation sat on the same land as Dryden’s current Domtar mill. In 2018, a former employee of the mill found the location of buried barrels of mercury within an underground pit, confirming another source of the contamination which continues to slowly seep into the river system and its fish.
Mercury is a toxic metal and exposure to it can lead to a variety of physical and neurological changes, many of them considered permanent. Once mercury is ingested, the metal doesn’t go away, accumulates within your body, and can pass from a mother to her unborn child.
With walleye a staple traditional food in Treaty #3, eating fish from the poisoned river system is likely where much of the mercury has originated in members. Studies have estimated it could be another 50 years until it’s safe to eat walleye from the same river system again, without the risk of mercury.
Studies have discovered a variety of health effects in Grassy Narrows due to the mercury poisoning, including high rates of suicidal tendencies and emotional or behavioural issues, speed and language difficulties, ADD, allergies, asthma, anxiety, depression, anemia, visual problems, ear infections and much more.
A study from 2018 found that children whose mothers ate fish from the river system at least once per week during pregnancy were found to be up to four times as likely to develop a learning disability, nervous system disorder, or at least one condition that would impact their performance at school.
Japanese research specialists have estimated that more than 90 per cent of the community show some signs of mercury poisoning, after beginning their work in 1975. But Health Canada had stopped the regular monitoring of mercury levels in the Grassy Narrows community by 1999.
The 1986 settlement did not acknowledge that anyone had been poisoned, and likened members’ illnesses to Minamata disease. Minamata disease is named after a Japanese community where 100 people died after eating mercury-contaminated fish.
The federal government established a Mercury Disability Board after a court settlement in 1986 between Reed Paper, Domtar, Ontario and Ottawa. But a report from 2014 showed that nearly 75 per cent of members’ claims had been denied. Payments were later retroactively increased in 2018.
Grassy Narrows First Nation leadership, along with leaders from Wabaseemoong Independent Nation, have lobbied the governments for generations to remediate the river system, provide clean water to their communities and to end one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters in its history.
While the mercury treatment centres are a great step, there’s still not much progress to report on any of the other studies and remedial work that the Ontario government has promised and outlined.
The Ontario government says they’re continuing to work with Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong to gather more information about mercury levels in the area, and they’re still investigating the Dryden mill site location to find any more sources of mercury.
The mill site’s investigation began in 2018 and results are still not released. As well, the province collected fish and water samples in the spring, summer and fall of 2017, but results of those samples were never released either.
The province notes they have established an $85 million trust fund for remediation work in 2017 and have spent $5.2 million on pre-remediation activities since 2016, but six years later, the actual work to clean up the river system still hasn’t even started.
Grassy Narrows First Nation has a reported population of about 1,500.