For Grassy Narrows families, mercury is an intergenerational trauma. For political parties, it’s a federal election issue

Fifty years after an Ontario First Nation learned its fish were poisoned, research suggests the damage is being handed down from parents to children. On the campaign trail, activists are pressing the parties to build a treatment centre for those afflicted

Chrissy Isaacs, 39, sits in her home on the Grassy Narrows First Nation alongside her grandson Kakiigawapi Swain, 3. Her daughters have shown neurological symptoms she believes are linked to mercury poisoning. PHOTOGRAPHY BY FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

For years, Chrissy Isaacs watched her grandfather struggle with the symptoms of mercury poisoning. He was a fisherman and a guide, his health damaged by the contaminated fish he ate.

Today, she worries about the fourth generation of his descendants. Her daughters, 18 and 13, are showing signs of neurological issues she believes are linked to the same mercury contamination that has devastated her community.

Generation after generation, Grassy Narrows First Nation has seen its crisis painfully prolonged. It has been almost 50 years since the revelation its fish had been poisoned by tonnes of mercury dumped into its river system by a paper mill owned by Reed Paper Ltd., in the Northern Ontario city of Dryden.

Recent studies by Montreal-based scientist Donna Mergler have found strong evidence – from umbilical-cord blood tests and community surveys – confirming the mercury damage is persisting from mothers to children. Children at Grassy Narrows are four times more likely to suffer from learning disabilities or nervous-system disorders if their mothers had regularly consumed fish during their pregnancies, one study found. (Dr. Mergler, professor emerita at the University of Quebec at Montreal, was the lead scientist in the studies, which were commissioned by Grassy Narrows First Nation.)

The crisis has emerged as a federal election issue, raised by candidates and audience members at national and local candidate debates since the beginning of the campaign. Activists have urged the party leaders to commit to building a treatment centre and hospice at Grassy Narrows for the victims.

In Toronto, thousands of people chanted, “Justice for Grassy Narrows” during a march for action on climate change in late September, and the mercury issue was debated again by candidates for the riding of Toronto Centre in early October. This week, at the first English-language debate of the federal leaders, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh complained that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had mocked a Grassy Narrows supporter at a fundraiser, while Mr. Trudeau insisted that “money is not the objection” in the delays to the treatment-centre project.

A specialized medical clinic, with staff who understand the complexities of mercury poisoning and how to diagnose the syndrome, could be crucial for the people of Grassy Narrows. Without it, they must travel for treatment in Kenora or Thunder Bay or Winnipeg, where doctors often wrongly assume their neurological or mental symptoms are due to alcohol abuse, Ms. Isaacs says. MORE

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