Gigoo-Aakoosi: Fish Is Sick tells the story of the Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek, also known as Grassy Narrows First Nation, and Wabauskang First Nation and the historical and ongoing devastation endured by those living with water contamination.
Through a nationwide investigation called Clean Water, Broken Promises, led by the Institute for Investigative Journalism and in partnership with Humber College and Canada's National Observer, we examine how water issues are impacting Indigenous communities. Before the pandemic struck at the beginning of 2020, a team of journalists and journalism students travelled north to hear first-hand accounts of what it was like for Indigenous people to still live with the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe.
Ontario government officials had concerns about “gross” pollution levels, caused by a mill in Dryden, entering the English-Wabigoon river system. Based on a 1969 report, the province had worries not only about the level of pollution but waste from the pulp and paper mill entering the river since it opened in 1913.
In 1970, the contamination became public knowledge.
That report, uncovered by a national investigation into water issues in Indigenous communities, cites disturbing levels of pollution in the Wabigoon River, the disappearance of fish downstream from the Dryden mill, sludge bank formations, surface water discolouration and offensive odours.
While the Ontario government quietly investigated the Wabigoon River, the 1969 report by what was then called the Ontario Water Resources Commission — now part of the province’s Environment Ministry — seemed more concerned about the impact the pollution in the river would have on the tourism industry than the health of the people living nearby. It highlighted the sector’s economic importance and how the water quality greatly impacted locations accessible to the general public.
The conclusion was clear. Since the Wabigoon River was first polluted by Dryden’s pulp mill waste as far back as 1913, it noted that “pollution has been a continuous source of concern for area residents, government agencies and conservationists.”
The extent of the pollution’s history came as a shock to many residents.
“They didn’t care,” Betty Riffel said about the Ontario government.
“I always thought that there was something there,” said the 82-year-old elder of Wabauskang First Nation about the water in Quibell, Ont., where her family lived from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s.
The elders always suspected the pollution was worse than government officials were letting on.
Riffel and the other elders talked about water contamination from decades earlier, pointing to the increasing illnesses and deaths, including the strange occurrences seen in the local animals and fish.
Known as Dryden Timber and Power Company, the kraft pulp and paper mill opened for business in 1913. With that came a manifold of toxic chemicals and debris entering the English-Wabigoon river system.
But it wasn’t until decades later that many Canadians became aware of the infamous mercury dump into the English-Wabigoon river system during the early 1960s to 1970 by Dryden Chemicals Limited. It caused an environmental disaster for Asubpeeschoseewagong and Wabaseemoong, formerly known as Whitedog First Nation, which is still under a long-term boil water advisory.
The Ontario government formally announced the mercury contamination in 1970. But concerns about the Wabigoon River actually date back nearly a century ago.
Over the decades, an array of toxins were dumped, including bleaching waste that produces phenols, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), also known as dioxins and furans, to pulp and sanitary waste. Many of them are highly toxic, even fatal. Such chemicals cause severe to long‐term reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, interference with hormones and cancer.
According to Miriam Diamond, an earth sciences professor at the University of Toronto, toxic and fatal contaminants were in use during the early 20th century as the pulp and paper industry boomed in Canada.
Ingrid Waldron adds a troubled perspective to this history. The McMaster University professor and HOPE Chair in Peace and Health in the Global Peace and Social Justice Program, whose research topics include health inequalities, says Indigenous communities near the Dryden mill experienced environmental racism, the well-documented suffering Indigenous, Black and racialized communities have endured at the hands of polluting industries.
Reports of early contamination confirm the worst fears of elders in the region, who always had their suspicions about the health of the river.
Riffel grew up with her family in Quibell from 1937 until 1962, when her parents, Bertha and John Petiquan, realized something was wrong with the water.
Other elders in the area had similar recollections.
From Migisi Sahgaigan First Nation, known as Eagle Lake, about 125 kilometres east of Kenora, Catherine Kelly was just one elder who talked about early water contamination in a telephone interview at the beginning of the pandemic.
She recalled the river system being polluted as early as the late 1930s.
Kelly, 88, was just six years old in 1938 when her family would regularly go wild-rice picking and drink from the Eagle River, which flows into the English-Wabigoon river system.
“The people there were right stricken," Kelly said in a telephone interview, about those living around Eagle Lake.
"Everybody had diarrhea all the time.”
In May 2020, a month after the interview, Kelly died of natural causes, according to a family member.
Riffel also remembers people being right stricken.
She recalls watching her younger brother, Donny Petiquan, die after a prolonged and violent seizure in September 1948. He was nine months old.
“He was sick from birth,” Riffel said during a sit-down interview before the pandemic struck her community and many others.
“He had diarrhea all the time.”
Riffel said Donny was one of 10 babies in Quibell to die from violent seizures during the late 1940s.
Like her ancestors, the Petiquan family harvested fish and water-bearing animals from the English-Wabigoon river system and drank directly from it.
Her mother also fed Donny canned Carnation evaporated milk mixed with water from the Wabigoon River.
To this day, Riffel believes the river’s water poisoned her brother.
“You used to have to swish the pail to clear it,” said Riffel, remembering seeing foam and what looked like black tar in the water.
The official cause of death came from a family doctor, who Riffel says blamed Donny’s death on an "incurable disease."
Still convinced the pollution was the culprit, she was outraged about the damage it was causing. That sentiment echoed throughout her community.
In 1954, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation MP Herbert Wilfred Herridge (Kootenay West, B.C.) said during a parliamentary debate, “The pollution of water is one of the most noxious weeds of industrial development in any community."
But the pollution went well beyond the Wabigoon River.
Clay Lake is about 70 kilometres northwest of Wabigoon Lake, at the base of the Wabigoon River a few kilometres south of the Dryden mill. Clay Lake would later be known for having the highest concentration of mercury in fish, which also prompted concerns from provincial politicians in Ontario.
“It’s been their approach,” said Sol Mamakwa, an NDP MPP for the Kiiwetinoong riding and opposition critic for Indigenous and treaty relations, about the Ontario government.
“They (the government) do not tell us what they’re doing on our lands, what they’re doing in our territories, what they’re doing on our treaty land.”
Kraft pulp mills like the Dryden mill used chemicals such as sulfur, sodium sulfate and sodium hydroxide in their process, and large amounts of effluent (wastewater) was released into the waterways since the mill began operating.
Large volumes of wood waste were also discharged into waterways such as the Wabigoon River, said Brian Branfireun, a biology professor at Western University.
“The discharge of all of this unregulated organic matter just dramatically changed the chemistry of the water in the river, and it also depleted the oxygen levels,” said Branfireun about the Wabigoon River.
Other toxic byproducts generated from kraft mills ravaged the water system once the mill started using a chlorinated process to bleach the pulp.
“The bleaching process would have created chlorinated dioxins and furans,” said Diamond, the earth sciences professor at the University of Toronto.
Chlorinated dioxins can cause development and reproductive toxicity, damage the immune system and even cause cancer. Phenols, a naturally occurring chemical, were also present and known to be toxic to humans and fish.
“There’s just a whole soup of chemicals,” said Diamond.
Some people also recounted earliest memories of another kind of poison entering the river system — mercury.
“My dad worked at the mill, so we knew what they were putting out into the water," said longtime Dryden resident Candis Fadden in a telephone interview during the summer of 2020. Fadden lived by the mill from the early 1960s, when she was four, until she was 18.
Fadden’s father, Ron, worked at the Dryden mill for 40 years until he retired in the early 1990s.
“They were putting in mercury and a lot of chlorine.”
Fadden’s suspicion was not off.
From 1962 to 1970, Dryden Chemicals Limited, a chlor-alkali plant, dumped 10 tonnes of untreated mercury into the Wabigoon River, a catastrophe eventually made public in 1970. The business was next to the Dryden mill and owned by Reed Limited at the time.
Federal politicians continued to be concerned about the pollution the Dryden mill was causing, sparking discussions about the contamination during parliamentary debates.
In May 1965, the NDP MP for Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Douglas Mason Fisher, said the Dryden mill "is notorious throughout that whole region because of the fact that by its method of disposing of its waste, it has in a sense ruined a couple of good fishing rivers and lakes and has been a blot, if you like, upon the whole region."
The Wabigoon River was not only a dumping ground for untreated mercury but for sanitary waste from the mill combined with processed wastes without treatment. Domestic waste from Dryden was also discarded following primary and secondary treatment.
The 1969 Ontario Water Resources Commission (OWRC) report concluded that “gross organo-toxic pollution exists throughout a lengthy portion of the Wabigoon River.”
The report also noted “little or no use is made of the Wabigoon River” other than for translocation and assimilation wastes. It did acknowledge, however, other uses were “obviated by pollution,” such as sport and commercial fishing.
The OWRC was concerned about the pollution in the Wabigoon River and how it might impact the region's tourism industry and revenue, stating: “Of equal concern, and perhaps greater public impact, is the physical condition of the river at public vantage points.”
Eventually, in 1970, the provincial government announced Dryden Chemicals Limited had discarded tonnes of untreated mercury in the English-Wabigoon river system.
The mercury travelled downstream for at least 250 kilometres, reaching Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.
“If you were in a community that was on the Wabigoon River anywhere from Dryden, downstream from Dryden, then you were absolutely potentially affected by the mercury contamination,” said Western University’s Branfireun.
Following this announcement, the provincial government ordered Dryden Chemicals Limited to stop dumping mercury.
But the damage was already done.
The river was severely contaminated, striking again at all forms of life along the English-Wabigoon river system.
Waldron, the expert in environmental racism and professor at McMaster University, is not surprised by how Indigenous communities close to the Dryden mill suffered tremendously or by the government’s slow response.
“It’s very easy to select those communities for environmental hazards,” said Waldron.
"There’s the sense that they don’t have the power to fight back."
Waldron points to the Northern Pulp Mill in Nova Scotia that began dumping toxic effluent in 1967 into A’se’k, also called Boat Harbour, that surrounds Pictou Landing First Nation. Failing to address the poisoning of Boat Harbour for decades, the provincial government finally announced it was shutting down the mill in January 2020. However, there’s still a chance that the mill could reopen, angering residents.
There is also a lot of anger and sadness in Ontario’s north.
Migisi Sahgaigan First Nation elder Kelly is no longer alive to hear the words of Waldron, nor to voice her concerns about the contaminants in the English-Wabigoon river system. But other elders, such as Riffel of Wabauskang, are still vowing to continue their fight to shine a light on the historical contamination that destroyed their communities.
This series is part of Clean Water, Broken Promises, a national investigation examining water issues in Indigenous communities co-ordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism and in partnership with Humber College and Canada's National Observer.
— With files from Patrick Simpson and Druv Sareen