Indigenous Health Conference plenary tackles nation’s environmental issues

IHC Highlight - 3
Image courtesy of Visually Sound

On May 27th, the second day of the 2016 Indigenous Health Conference, a panel composed of David Suzuki, Chief Roland Willson, Chief Lynette Tsakoza, Chief Simon Fobister, and Professor Donna Mergler addressed the devastating consequences of the Canadian government’s environmental abuse.

The discussion centred on how pollution is a component of systemic racism, and how it has contributed to the Indigenous health crisis in Canada.

“I believe the challenge now is to acquire that continued sense of connection that Indigenous people have held onto despite all the years of disease, of residential schools and cultural genocide,” said Suzuki. “This should be a priority.”

Chief Willson spoke about how that connection is being severed for the West Moberly First Nation. A recent study found that 98% of their fish samples contain mercury levels above provincial guidelines.

He pointed out several areas in which the province of British Columbia has not adhered to laws and treaties designed to protect Canadian wildlife, and the crowd was audibly saddened as he shared stories of having to put down beavers and bison suffering from mercury poisoning.

Professor Mergler, whose neurophysiology research focuses on the neurotoxic effects of exposure to environmental pollutants, examined the ways in which Minamata disease has a deep and far-reaching effect.

“This is going to be a crash course on why mercury is bad for you,” she said as she stepped up the podium, an understatement that caused the Mississauga conference room to fill with laughter.

According to Professor Mergler, everyone consumes mercury, but many First Nations people are subject to much higher levels because they are exposed to the “point sources” of mercury, including micro-electric dams, municipal dumping sites, and even logging.

“The effects of mercury poisoning… begin with small alterations, yet these small alterations can have very important community effects,” she said, noting that many children are born with no symptoms of Minimata and later develop the debilitating neurological disease.

As an example, she used the Grassy Narrows First Nation crisis, which has been making headlines in recent months due to a protest campaign demanding that Premier Kathleen Wynne undue the long-lasting contamination caused by a chemical plant that closed in the 1970’s.
On the first day of the conference, Natan Obed had spoken about the psychological effects of being neglected by one’s country. The members of the panel also probed deeper, discussing not only the horrifying physical effects of contamination, but the additional emotional loss.

“They’re taking our water source away, they’re taking our home away, they’re taking our animals… everything,” said Chief Tsakoza. “If someone comes in to my home and tries to take it away, I will fight to protect it.”

For the full video recording of the plenary, visit the Indigenous Health Conference Facebook page. To learn more about the Indigenous Health Conference, visit