In 1970, federal government agents reported to the commercial fishermen and tourist lodge owners on the English-Wabigoon River systems that the rivers were contaminated with mercury. The fish in the rivers were testing high for methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury. The fish were unsafe to eat for both humans and animals.
Later, it was learned that the source of contamination was Dryden Chemicals Limited, located at the Dryden Paper Company Limited in Dryden, Ontario. This plant had dropped over 20,000 lbs. of untreated mercury wastewater into the Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970. The rivers and lakes downstream were contaminated for at least 250 kilometers.
This contamination forced one tourist lodge to close down. Commercial fishers lost their source of livelihood. This closure caused unemployment to people living at Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations reserves. Workers who depended on these activities to make their living had to turn to welfare. It was a severe hardship to these communities.
It should be noted that this was not the first disaster they experienced. In the 1950s, Ontario Hydro had flooded lands occupied by these people to build generating stations. Those displaced were relocated to various communities. On-reserve schools were built. Families that had normally traveled together on the trap lines became separated, for at least one parent had to stay behind with the children.
Aware of the possibility of getting compensation for loss of livelihood, the two First Nations immediately began to look into ways of getting financial assistance for its members. It took 16 years to achieve their goal.
In 1985, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations and Grassy Narrows First Nation made a settlement with the Federal Government, the province of Ontario, and two paper
companies, for all claims due to mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River systems. On July 28, 1986, it was proclaimed law. The Act is formally called the “Grassy Narrows and Islington Indian Bands Mercury Pollution Claims Settlement Act, Bill C-110”.
This law set up the Mercury Disability Fund. Members of these First Nations who display symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning could apply for funds to live on.
Eligibility to Apply for Benefits
For a person to be eligible to apply for benefits (per legislation), that person must be a current member of Grassy Narrows First Nation or Wabaseemoong Independent Nations; a past member of one of the two bands; or a registered Indian who was customarily resident on one the two first nation communities prior to the first day of October 1985