Research links mercury poisoning and youth suicide in Grassy Narrows

By Kevin Jeffrey
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A First Nation in Northwestern Ontario affected by mercury poisoning is drawing a link between that crisis and youth suicide rates.

Both the federal and provincial levels of governments have received numerous calls to help Grassy Narrows, a First Nation north of Kenora, dealing with mercury poisoning and now a link with attempted suicide amongst children and youths.

Donna Mergler, a physiologist and professor emerita at the University of Quebec, laid out a study in the Environmental Health Perspectives that examines links from grandparents to mothers’ exposure and mental health and children and youth risk for attempted suicide in the community during a Wednesday press conference at Queen’s Park.

The attempted suicide rate was 41.2 per cent among girls between the ages of 12 and 17 and 10.7 per cent for boys.

What Mergler, along with three other authors of the study found, was that the younger generation was affected by their mother’s fish consumption during pregnancy as well as their parent’s exposure to mercury during childhood.

“We’re very saddened by the report, but it also confirmed what we feared all along,” said Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Rudy Turtle. “The impacts [of mercury poisoning] have been very devastating in terms of our economy, way of life.”

The chief also called on the provincial government to remove activity in Indigenous protected area, such as logging and mining.

“We’ve done enough damage [to the land], why do more?” Turtle asked. “Remove the mining claims. We want to preserve our land so our children can enjoy our land for many generations.”

The former Dryden Chemical Company dumped nine tonnes of mercury into the river between 1962 and 1970.

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, who also serves as the NDP’s Indigenous and treaty relations critic, echoed the calls to make steps towards real reconciliation.

“We cannot continue to accept that suicide attempts [or] completed suicides are normal,” Mamakwa said. “We cannot continue to accept colonialism anymore. We cannot continue to accept oppression the way that governments act where they do little things without doing anything. I call on both the federal government [and provincial government] to again put proper resources that is programming support for the people of arrows that is without barriers.”

There is an ongoing legal battle between the province and the First Nation over nine permits that were granted for mineral exploration in traditional territory without consultation.

The First Nation signed a $90-million agreement with the federal government in 2020 to build a long-term care home for residents living with mercury poisoning.

Shovels are expected to be in the ground in 2024.