The young people of Grassy Narrows led their community’s march from sites of provincial and federal government power on Thursday, picking up on long-standing calls for adequate compensation for the mercury poisoning they have been dealing with for decades.
It was the second time 17-year-old Nora Swain Sneaky has made the trip to Toronto for the protest, which has been held since 2010.
“When we came last time, it was my mum and my aunties and my grandma, and the fact that it’s me who is coming now — still for the same thing — it’s heartbreaking,” she said outside Queen’s Park, the provincial legislature where thousands of supporters convened before the march.
“I came for my family, that I could get that justice for them, too,” she said. “Because all of my life and all my siblings’ lives, we’ve been in and out of hospital for health conditions.”
Two upstream paper mills dumped tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River 60 years ago, causing widespread health problems for Grassy Narrows’ residents, the vast majority of whom have received no compensation from successive Ontario and federal governments since a court settlement in the 1980s.
Once ingested, mercury never goes away, passing from mother to child via the placenta. Mercury poisoning can cause tremors, headaches, neuromuscular effects, memory loss and, in extreme cases, death.
Another young Grassy Narrows resident who addressed the crowd said they were shown to be exposed when they were two years old.
“I’ve been dealing with seizures and I can’t do things that other people can do,” said Darwin Fobister. “I can’t play certain sports because I have numbness in the hands and tingling, I have speech impediments. There are so many symptoms.
“It darkened my future, and it’s passed on from generation to generation to generation,” he added.
Another young resident, Hazel Sneaky, said it was important to show up and demand that promises made by the federal Liberal government of Justin Trudeau are kept.
The federal Liberals agreed last year to provide a total of $90 million to build a home to care for people experiencing health impacts of the chemical, but the marchers want more.
They are demanding fair compensation for all residents of Grassy Narrows for the ongoing mercury crisis, as well as support to help the community restore its way of life, and for an end to mining and logging in the territory.
“The first generation that started this all passed away, we’re the new generation,” Sneaky said. “You can see all of the effects of mercury slowly creep up on the elders, and it’s just a matter of time until it creeps up on this generation. And that’s scary, that’s scary to think about.”
Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer