Ontario Minamata disease

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Ontario Minamata disease is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. It occurred in the Canadian province of Ontario, in 1970, and severely affected two First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario following consumption of local fish contaminated with mercury, and one First Nation in Southern Ontario due to illegal disposal of industrial chemical waste. The disease was named after the infamous case of severe mercury poisoning in the fishing community of Minamata, Japan, which became known as Minamata disease because it devastated only the residents of the community.

Source of the mercury pollution[edit]

Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations[edit]

In 1962, Dryden Chemical Company began operating a chloralkali process plant in Dryden, Ontario using mercury cells.[1][2] 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.[1] Both companies were subsidiaries of the British multinational, Reed International.[1]

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 26, 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.[2] It was estimated that over 9,000 kg of mercury had been dumped by the company into the Wabigoon-English river system between 1962 and 1970.[2] 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.[2]

Sarnia First Nation[edit]

The Aamjiwnaang First Nation (the Chippewas of Sarnia) 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.[3]

Health effects[edit]

Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations[edit]

In the late 1960s, people in the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog 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.[4][5] Blood mercury levels were above 100 ppb in a significant number of individuals and above 200 ppb in several others.[5] Symptoms included sensory disturbances, such as narrowing of the visual field, and impaired hearing, abnormal eye movements, tremor, ataxia (impaired balance), and dysarthria (poor articulation of speech).[5]

Health effects continued to be felt, even in young people, in the 21st century. Dumping of drums of mercury which continue to leak is suspected,[6] and field work by Brian Branfireun and others continues to monitor the health of the ecosystem.[7][8][9]

Lawsuits and settlements[edit]

Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations[edit]

The Asabiinyashkosiwagong Nitam-Anishinaabeg or the "Grassy Narrows First Nation" and their downstream neighbours, the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations (then known as the "Whitedog Community of the Islington Band of Saulteaux") "sought compensation for loss of jobs and way of life. According to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) Ontario Region Communications, "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."[10]

According to INAC, a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) reached in 1985 between the federal government, the Ontario government, Reed Limited, and Great Lakes Forest Products Ltd. resulted in a one-time compensation payment of $16.67 million with the federal government contributing $2 million, the Ontario government paying . Through the 1986 "Grassy Narrows and Islington Indian Bands Mercury Pollution Claims Settlement Act". Through this claims settlement, the Kenora, Ontario-based Mercury Disability Fund (MDF) and the Mercury Disability Board.[10] The Government of Ontario held $2 million of this settlement in a trust fund which the province is "responsible for replenishing when the balance drops below $100,000.[10]

Nevertheless, the community members have seen little of this money, due to conditions on its use and bureaucratic requirements by band councils. Similarly to other First Nations communities, the federal government's Indian Act governance system has made it difficult for band councils and chiefs to negotiate for their people.[11]

Chief Sakatcheway was the first leader of community when the treaty was signed and mainly wanted education for the community.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c D'ltri, P A; D'ltri, F M (January 1978). "Mercury contamination: A human tragedy". Environmental Management. 2 (1): 3–16. doi:10.1007/BF01866442. ISSN 1432-1009.
  2. ^ a b c d McDonald, A. "Indigenous peoples' vulnerabilities exposed: Lessons learned from Canada's Minamata incident: An Environmental analysis based on the case study of methyl-mercury pollution in northwestern Ontario, Canada" (PDF). Japanese Association for Canadian Studies. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-10-14. Retrieved 2007-12-14. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ "Caught in a toxic web, Canadian natives are alarmed by a shortage of sons" Archived 2012-02-09 at the Wayback Machine. AP News archive
  4. ^ Mercury Poisoning. CX16. Quaker Committee for Native Concerns, Toronto, Canada. 1976. Retrieved 2007-12-14.
  5. ^ a b c Harada, M, Fujino, T, Akagi, T, and Nishigaki, S. "Epidemiological and clinical study and historical background of mercury pollution on Indian Reservations in Northwestern Ontario, Canada". Bulletin of the Institute of Constitutional Medicine, Kumamoto University, Kumamoto, Japan. 26: 169–184.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Susan Goldberg (April 19, 2017). "The Town Where Mercury Still Rises". The New York Times. Retrieved April 19, 2017.
  7. ^ Forbes, Ryan (2018-08-14). "ODSP now covers mercury poisoning".
  8. ^ Loriggio, Paola (2017-02-28). "Chief says mercury still leaking from mill near Grassy Narrows - According to Chief Simon Fobister, a new report suggests there is ongoing contamination from the Dryden, Ont., mill".
  9. ^ Forbes, Ryan (2017-10-25). "Mercury legacy 'frightening,'commissioner".
  10. ^ a b c "English-Wabigoon River Mercury Compensation". INAC Ontario Region Communications. April 12, 2005. Archived from the original on March 11, 2008. Retrieved March 5, 2021.
  11. ^ "New Socialist: Grassy Narrows: History of the fight". Archived from the original on 2008-03-16. Retrieved 2007-10-25.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ningewance, Patricia M., "Summary of Mercury Intoxication: a Translation" in An Ojibwe Text Anthology, edited by John D. Nichols. The Centre for Research and Teaching of Canadian Native Languages, University of Western Ontario (London, ON: 1988).
  • Hightower, Jane, Diagnosis Mercury: Money, Politics and Poison, Island Press, 2008, chapter 9.
  • Shkilnyk, Anestasia, A Poison Stronger than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community, Yale University Press (March 11, 1985), trade paperback, 276 pages, ISBN 0300033257 ISBN 978-0300033250; hardcover, Yale University Press (March 11, 1985), ISBN 0300029977 ISBN 978-0300029970

External links[edit]