The Fish Are Poisoned

Gisselle Villagracia
Human Rights Blogger
One Nation, Two Worlds

It is no surprise that pollution, especially mercury pollution, is an extreme problem within Canada’s waters and the Indigenous people pay the price in regards to their health, spirituality, culture, politics, and economy. Without fresh, clean water Indigenous communities are not able to complete everyday tasks like cleaning or cooking, thus, are forced to purchase water from corporate companies. Water is meant to clean itself but the deposits of toxins are far too intense, so state-of-the-art filtration systems step in to purify the water taking all its natural nutrients in the process. Indigenous people believe everything they put into their bodies remain with them for the rest of their lives, so as fish and marine mammals heavily contribute to their diet, the mercury disaster had a critical toll on their health and well-being.

In eastern North America, it was found that the mercury (Hg) concentrations in fish far exceeded the safety standard for human consumption. With extended exposure to Hg, permanent damage in the brain, kidneys, and a developing fetus is likely to occur. This problem became so large that a partnership between the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and the Arctic Environmental Strategy had to monitor the level of contaminants in fish and wildlife in northern and arctic Canada. The results were astonishing. Forty percent of fish surpassed the Canadian consumption guideline level of 0.5 u/g total Hg. It’s easy to say, “just stop eating fish,’ but it isn’t that simple. For an Indigenous person, veering away from their traditional diets may not only cause an increase in obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, but it also strips them away from their culture and identity. They’ve already been through enough with the 1876 Indian Act, it’s the government’s responsibility to regulate and manage their water’s contaminants because cleaning and reselling water back to Indigenous communities does not solve the problem.

During a medical examination in 2002, 49 out of 57 northwestern Ontario inhabitants complained of multiple subjective symptoms including numbness, joint pain, cramps, dizziness, hearing difficulty, a disturbed gait, headaches, trembling, forgetfulness, and stiffness, and a majority of the whole experienced sensory symptoms.


Even nearby animals were also affected, such as turkeys and looms, who tested for high levels of mercury found in the liver, muscle tissues and eggs, as well as cats developed symptoms of mercury poisoning after 90 days of eating the local fish. It is clear that mercury poisoning is not to be taken lightly as it puts the future Indigenous generations in danger. Although the Mercury Disability Board recognized this concern and offered compensation for complications that arose, the board still fell short by only covering medical fees and loss of earnings rather than tackling the root of the poison. Water is more than just a necessity, it is a medicine and must be protected and kept sacred for the future of the people, animals, and nature depend on it.


Chan, H. M., & Receveur, O. (2000). Mercury in the traditional diet of indigenous peoples in Canada. Environmental Pollution, 110(1), 1-2. doi:10.1016/s0269-7491(00)00061-0

Harada, M., Fujino, T., Oorui, T., Nakachi, S., Nou, T., Kizaki, T., . . . Ohno, H. (2005). Followup Study of Mercury Pollution in Indigenous Tribe Reservations in the Province of Ontario, Canada, 1975–2002. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 74(4), 689-697. doi:10.1007/s00128-005-0638-7

Bedard, R. (2008). Keepers of the Water: Nishnaabe-kwewag Speaking for the Water. Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations, 89-109.

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