The Story of Grassy Narrows

Delores Broten & Claire Gilmore

Map via TVO.org

Last week, environmental organization Earthroots came out with evidence of mercury contamination upstream from the Grassy Narrows First Nation. Soil samples that showed hundreds of times the mercury level of a nearby uncontaminated site were taken from an area behind the Dryden paper mill where former mill worker Kas Glowacki said he buried 50 barrels of mercury and salt in 1972. The Grassy Narrows First Nation is now demanding a full clean up of the site, saying “No more fancy talk, no more studies. We just want it cleaned up.”

It’s about time the federal and Ontario governments paid attention to the Grassy Narrows First Nation – people in the area have been suffering from the health effects (which have been linked to autism in multiple studies) of mercury poisoning since at least the 1960’s. The timeline below just scratches the surface of their long and tragic story.


1873: the government of Canada signed Treaty 3 with the Ojibway of northwest Ontario, including the Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) First Nation. The First Nations ceded all the lands between Ontario’s 1873 borders and the province of Manitoba. The Grassy Narrows First Nation is granted a reserve on their traditional lands along the Wabigoon River.

1913: Dryden Timber and Power starts the first kraft pulp mill in northwest Ontario.

1962: Dryden Chemical, relying on a mercury-based process to produce bleaching agents for the paper mill nearby, begins dumping untreated mercury waste into the Wabigoon River.

1969-70: High levels of mercury are discovered in the water and fish downriver from the plant. Dryden Chemical had dumped more than 20,000 pounds of mercury into the Wabigoon.

1970: The government of Ontario closes the Wabigoon-English river system commercial fishery, removing one of the primary sources of income for residents of Grassy Narrows.

1975-79: Dryden Chemical first stores mercury waste onsite for later safe disposal, and eventually changes its processes to eliminate its use of mercury altogether.

1977: The Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations begin legal actions against Dryden Paper and Reed Limited, seeking damages for the health and economic effects of mercury pollution.

1985: The governments of Canada and Ontario, as well as Reed Limited and Great Lakes Forest Products, reach a legal settlement with the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations, providing nearly $17 million in compensation ($34 million in 2016 dollars) for the health effects of mercury in their communities. Ontario grants the Dryden mill and any future owners a broad indemnity, assuming all environmental liabilities related to the mill and its mercury dumping.

2009: Domtar, now merged with Weyerhaeuser, closes the last paper machine at Dryden mill, leaving just pulp production.

2011: The Ontario Ministry of Environment orders Weyerhaeuser to monitor mercury levels around the Dryden site. Weyerhaeuser goes to court to stop the order, saying the indemnity Ontario provided in 1985 makes environmental monitoring the government’s responsibility.

2014: Government scientists warn that logging would exacerbate mercury pollution, leading the Grassy Narrows community to request an environmental assessment of the logging permits. The provincial government rejects the request.

July 2016: The Ontario Superior Court rules that the wide-ranging indemnity Ontario gave Great Lakes Paper in 1985 still applies, and exempts Weyerhauser from monitoring requirements.

Sept. 2016: Japanese experts in mercury poisoning report that 90 per cent of the population of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations show signs of exposure to the toxin, including people born years after the dumping of mercury ended.

A movement is building to demand full cleanup of the site – add your voice by calling Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and signing this petition to Wynne and PM Justin Trudeau.


Timeline excerpted from “How the waters of Grassy Narrows were poisoned,” by John Michael McGrath, TVO.org

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