Wabauskang First Nation still not compensated for mercury poisoning from the Dryden paper mill
Betty Riffel, an elder of the Wabauskang First Nation, is still fighting for compensation for the mercury poisoning her community received from the English-Wabigoon river system, contaminated by the pulp and paper industry in Dryden, Ontario.
The mercury contamination of the river system was discovered in the 1970′s. Dryden Chemical Company, a chloralkali process plant, supplied both sodium hydroxide and chlorine used in large amounts for bleaching paper during production for the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company. Dryden Chemical company discharged their effluent into the Wabigoon-English River system. An estimated 20,000 pounds of mercury entered the river system between 1962 and 1975. In addition to the mercury, the pulp and paper mill discharged a variety of chemicals, including organochlorines, dioxins, and furans, into the river system.
After the contamination was discovered, the Ontario government initially told the Grassy Narrows and Wabseemong First Nations communities to stop eating fish, their main source of protein, and closed their commercial fishery.
In the 1985, the government established a mercury disability compensation board that compensated the people of the Grassy Narrows and Wabseemong First Nations for the disruption to their traditional lifestyles.
The Anishinaabek people living around Quibell, a small railway community north of Vermillion Bay, now part of the Wabauskang First Nation, were the first to be hit with the contamination, yet were not even told they were exposed to large amounts of mercury until the late 1980′s.
The non-Native people living in Quibell were compensated for mercury poisoning, however the Wabauskang First Nation people living in Quibell did not receive compensation. The government said the Wabauskang First Nation is located on a separate watershed therefore doesn’t qualify for compensation.
Studies by the Wabauskang First Nation in 2002 revealed the levels of mercury were still elevated in pike, walleye, and otters living in the English-Wabigoon River system.
People in Quibell started getting sick in the mid-1940′s. 10 babies, who were bottle fed with carnation milk mixed with river water, died between 1947 and 1949 from violent seizures. Babies that were breastfed survived, but suffered life-long neurological damage. Only 9 members of the community are alive today. Beyond financial compensation, the remaining members of the community are looking for recognition of their suffering.
Riffel wrote a letter in late November to the media, hoping that someone would hear her story.
Betty Riffel’s letter
November 28, 2012
I am writing this letter in the hope that someone will hear us and tell our story.
I am a member of the Wabauskang First Nation, I am 73 years old, and I am the victim of mercury poisoning. Many others in my community have been poisoned by mercury and suffered its terrible effects.
This mercury poisoning also affects Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations. Both of those First Nations received a multi-million dollar settlement. Part of the settlement included the establishment of the Mercury Disability Board to compensate individuals.
The people of Wabauskang have received nothing.
Just like those at Grassy Narrows and Whitedog, our people have suffered many of the devastating effects of mercury poisoning: bottle fed babies dying in high numbers, mental retardation, neurological problems, numbness, tremors, and violent seizures.
We have never received any compensation or even acknowledgement from Canada or Ontario of what was done to us. We attempted to get both governments to address our problems many times, but we have been ignored. Canada told us it was nothing to do with them. Ontario told us there was no money to help us.
There aren’t many of us left, only nine. Those of us who are still alive are sick and suffering from the effects of the poisoning. We are old, and it seems to us that Ontario and Canada are just waiting for us to die because it will be cheaper than helping us.
The people suffering from mercury poisoning mostly came from the original site of the reserve which was near Quibell, Ontario. In the late 1960s, Indian Affairs came to Quibell, burned the houses to the ground, and then forced everyone to move to Wabauskang Lake. Many people had been sick in the community with symptoms we now know are consistent with mercury poisoning.
In the late 1960s, my brother called me to tell me that Indian Affairs was trying to disband Wabauskang. We resisted and built an 18 km road to the reserve without any funds from Indian Affairs.
From the late 1960s to late 1970s Dryden Chemical Limited dumped more than 40,000 pounds of mercury in to the English-Wabigoon River system. There have been numerous studies and reports documenting this contamination and its devastating effects.
In 2006, Dr. Leanne Simpson, completed a draft report on the contamination at Wabauskang, which has been shared with both Ontario and Canada. Dr. Simpson stated in her report:
Fish in the English-Wabigoon River were severely contaminated by methyl mercury with mean mercury concentrations in 1975 ranging from 0.47-5.98 ppm. Health Canada’s guideline for the safe consumption of fish for frequent fish eaters is 0.2 ppm. Studies completed by Wabauskang First Nation in 2002 indicate that there are still elevated levels of mercury in pike and walleye….
Our people, just like those at Grassy Narrows and Whitedog, continued to eat the fish and drink the water. People in our community did not even know about the contamination until the 1980s.
Why were the people of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog helped and compensated and we were not?
Why does the government tell us everything is safe when they should know it is not?
Our people have lost our way of life, our natural resources, our heritage, and we have been poisoned. Why is the government ignoring us?
‘They’re waiting for us to die’ (Wawatay News Online)
First Nations elder pleads for help after mercury poisoning (CBC)
‘Mercury ruined our lives’ (Wawatay News Online)
In the wake of contamination Wabauskang wants answers (Wawatay News Online)
Final Report of the Wabauskang First Nations Indigenous Knowledge and Contaminants Program (NationTalk)
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