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First Nation says report shows government played down scope of mercury poisoning

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TORONTO - For years, the federal and provincial governments have known members of a northern Ontario First Nation suffered from mercury poisoning but failed to provide adequate compensation or health care, band members said Monday.

The Grassy Narrow First Nation said it has obtained an unreleased government report that found there is "no doubt" people in the community of roughly 1,600 near Kenora, Ont., suffered from mercury-related neurological disorders — something the band said officials have never formally acknowledged.

"The government has been sitting on this report since 2009," Grassy Narrows Chief Roger Fobister Sr. said in a news conference in Toronto.

Meanwhile, the Mercury Disability Board, which includes both levels of government, "continues to overlook the sick people of Grassy Narrows," Fobister said.

The report was commissioned by the board, which administers compensation for those whose health suffered as a result of mercury poisoning. The board could not immediately be reached for comment.

A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs said members of Grassy Narrows sit on the board and would have reviewed the report when it was presented in 2010. The board also held an open house in the community to discuss the report, Scott Cavan said.

Both provincial and federal governments said they continue to work to address the issue of mercury contamination.

A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said Ottawa has contributed more than $9 million in compensation to Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations for economic and social development initiatives.

Critics nonetheless called for the report to be publicly released.

"A coverup involving the poisoning of an entire community is not something you expect to hear about here in Ontario," NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic Sarah Campbell said in a statement.

"The government owes it to residents to release any information they have about the issue, and to take concrete steps to address ongoing health, nutrition and environmental issues stemming from the industrial waste."

Water around Grassy Narrows has been contaminated with mercury since a local paper mill dumped an estimated 10 tonnes of neurotoxins into the system between 1962 and 1970.

Grassy Narrows and the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations negotiated an out-of-court settlement with Ottawa, the province and two paper companies in the 1980s. The board was created as part of the settlement.

The report compared the board's decisions in several cases with diagnoses made by Japanese experts on Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by mercury poisoning, who examined the community between 1975 and 2004.

It found the board recognized only 38 per cent of the cases identified by the experts, noting the discrepancies "are due to different criteria used for evaluations."

"The approach used by the Mercury Disability Board to assess whether or not an applicant has signs or symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning was designed based on the state of science and knowledge of the impact of mercury on human health in the 1980s," it reads.

Judy Da Silva, a Grassy Narrows member and activist, said people are being turned away by the board and forced to file appeals, only to remain unsuccessful.

"Everyone should have gotten automatic compensation forever," she said. "For us to go and beg for pennies is ridiculous."

The band is calling for the government to formally apologize for allowing its people to suffer from mercury poisoning and step up compensation and care.

It also wants the government to clean up the water and block clearcutting projects that could exacerbate the situation.

The province established a mercury working group more than a year ago, but Da Silva, who is part of the group, said progress has stalled without participation from Ottawa.

Cavan said the group, which includes several provincial ministries as well as First Nations members, continues to meet and develop strategies to address mercury-related issues.

"They are researching economic development opportunities for the community, including commercial fishing and guiding with further discussions to take place later this summer," he said, adding the group is also looking at educational opportunities for youth.

History

Updated on Monday, July 28, 2014 at 6:37 PM CDT: Adds video.

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