‘They’re waiting for us to die’
Betty Riffel’s struggle to get recognition and compensation for the mercury poisoning her and her community of Wabauskang First Nation have suffered through is gaining increased urgency.
In the summer of 2012, 11 remaining Wabauskang members with diseases caused by mercury poisoning gathered to meet Ontario’s minister of Aboriginal Affairs. Since then, two of them have passed on, leaving only nine Wabauskang members left who lived on the fish and water that a Dryden paper mill contaminated with mercury in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
Riffel first promised herself to do something about her people’s mercury poisoning as she watched her baby brother die when she was nine years old.
Over 60 years later, her anger at the company that polluted the English and Wabigoon River and the governments that let it happen still burns.
“We watched all those people dying left and right,” Riffel told Wawatay News. “What really bothers me is all the babies that died, sick with mercury poisoning. They were sent home to die.”
In 1970, mercury contamination from a Dryden paper mill was discovered in fish in the English-Wabigoon River system. Since then, long-term health studies have shown clear links between mercury consumed in fish and in the water and symptoms of Minimata Disease, such as difficulty walking a straight line, difficulty seeing, hearing impairment, headaches, insomnia and numbness in the limbs. Those effects are still being seen in people of the region, even those born long after the pulp mill stopped dumping mercury into the river system.
In the mid-1980s, both the federal government and the Ontario government awarded compensation to Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (White Dog) First Nations for the loss of jobs and loss of life. The Mercury Disability Fund was established to help determine and award compensation to individuals affected by mercury poisoning.
Yet despite that acknowledgement of mercury poisoning in the English-Wabigoon River system, the people of Wabauskang have still never been included in the settlements or compensation packages.
The government’s reasons for that omission have not been made public. Riffel, along with others in her community still suffering from the poisoning, cannot comprehend it.
“The government knew we were there,” she said. “We’re closer to Dryden than Grassy Narrows and White Dog. So why didn’t they help us?”
And now Riffel worries that the governments are purposefully ignoring the community’s calls for acknowledgement, waiting, as she put it, for the remaining Elders to pass away.
“The people that are still alive are not in good health,” Riffel said. “It looks like the government is waiting for us to die so they don’t have to pay.”
Meanwhile young people in the community are also dealing with the possible effects of mercury poisoning. The latest death that left Wabauskang reeling was the passing of Delaney Payash, a 23-year-old who died from kidney failure. Payash started dialysis when he was 18, something the people of Wabauskang attribute to mercury.
And while others in the community still feel the effects of mercury poisoning, it is the Elders who are still leading the push for an apology and compensation.
In July 2012 the last 11 Elders made their most recent appeal for recognition to Ontario’s then-minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Kathleen Wynne, when Wynne visited Grassy Narrows. The Elders provided the government representatives with a letter explaining their situation and a request for action.
But like with so many of Wabauskang’s efforts in the past, the government has not yet responded.
In the end, while some form of financial compensation would be nice, Riffel and her community are looking for recognition of their suffering.
“They could set some kind of a monument for all the people who died,” she said. “An apology is what I want, mostly. We want to be recognized as people.”
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