Mercury pollution protested with hunger strike by First Nations chief

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(NaturalNews) The former chief of Grassy Narrows, a tribe residing near Kenora, Ontario, announced a hunger strike late last month in a last-ditch effort to draw attention to the victims of mercury poisoning.

More than 10 tons of toxic waste was dumped into the Wabigoon-English River system between 1962 and 1970 by a nearby pulp mill, sickening thousands and contaminating the main source of fish for the Grassy Narrows First Nation tribe.

Former Grassy Narrows Chief Steve Fobister began the hunger strike amid the government's failure to act on the findings by the Mercury Disability Board that disclosed proof of the community's ongoing suffering due to mercury poisoning.

The Board was established in 1986 through an out-of-court settlement to "assess and manage claims related to mercury contamination in the Wabigoon/English River system," as reported by CBC News.

The report stated, "There is no doubt that there was high mercury exposure in these two communities in the late sixties and early seventies ... There is no doubt that at these levels of exposure, many persons were suffering from mercury-related neurologic disorders."

Despite the board's findings, the government did nothing and has made no promises to clean up the river. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says any spill larger than 2 tablespoons of mercury should be reported to the state environmental agency, and it's mandatory to call the National Response Center, according to the Council of Canadians.

First Nations leaders say the 2010 report entitled "Literature Review: The Impact of Mercury Poisoning on Human Health" was kept hidden from the public and, most importantly, those affected by mercury.

Although the Canadian government has given approximately $9 million to the tribe, most of it was in the1980s, inadequate for helping with today's medical costs.

David Sone, a campaigner for the environmental group Earthroots, who is helping the tribe, says the board is using "old science and, because of that, they're excluding the majority of people who deserve compensation."

Between 2002 and 2004, Japanese scientist Dr. Masazumi Harada revealed that nearly 80 percent of the 187 people tested in Grassy Narrows "had or may have had Minimata disease, a condition arising from exposure to methylmercury."

Dr. Harada visited the tribe in 1975, but upon returning in 2004 found 43 percent of his patients deceased, including those who had high levels of mercury.

The people of the Grassy Narrows First Nation tribe certainly aren't asking for much, just that their river be cleaned up, their medical expenses stemming from the ongoing effects of mercury be paid, and an apology be issued for not taking responsibility for allowing the Grassy Narrows people to be poisoned.

No amount of mercury exposure is safe. Even small levels can cause permanent neurological damage, having toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, including the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes, according to the World Health Organization.

"I'm dying anyway, one piece at a time," said the former chief, who visibly suffers from disabilities caused by mercury.

In an interview with CTV News, Fobister was asked if he could just move away to avoid the mercury that's still contaminating the environment. The former chief said that his system, along with many others, is already poisoned, and that's something you can't move away from.

The tribal people have a deep connection to the land, their last tangible link to their ancestors who fished and hunted there.

"Based on today's food and gas prices, and the fact there is 80-per-cent unemployment, people will eat the fish and go to the bush and shoot moose to supplement the table," said Fobister, according to The Toronto Star. "That is our lifestyle and our cultural foods. We aren't in a position to stop the people. Parents will fish to feed their children."

Fobister ended the hunger strike after speaking with the Ontario Minister of Aboriginal Affairs; however, government negotiations are deadlocked. The government is seemingly focused on a newly approved 10-year plan for clear-cut logging on the tribe's territory, another intrusive action that threatens the indigenous group's way of life.

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