Decades-old water pollution ravaged the health of 2 Ontario First Nations. Elders are still fighting for justice

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This is Part 2 of a three-part series called Gigoo-Aakoosi: Fish Is Sick.

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 impact Indigenous communities. Before the pandemic struck, a team of journalists and journalism students travelled north to hear first-hand accounts of what it was like for Indigenous people to live with the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe and continued long-term drinking water advisories.

Gigoo-Aakoosi: Fish Is Sick Part 1 examined the history of the pollution that affected both communities. Part 2 focuses on one of the communities still fighting for compensation. Part 3 looks at the lingering effects of contaminated water in Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum-Anishinabek.

Betty Riffel recalls the day she watched her baby brother die.

Though the death happened 70 years ago in the northern Ontario community of Quibell, the haunting memory is still fresh.

He had a prolonged seizure and then just stopped moving, the Wabauskang First Nation elder said during a face-to-face interview, before the pandemic made travel to Ontario’s remote communities impossible.

"It still bothers me," she said. But the misery didn't end with the death of one sibling. Her baby brother, Donny, was one of 10 children who died in the community during their first year of life.

As part of this investigation, a small team of journalists and student journalists travelled to Quibell and Wabauskang, a community whose residents lived and worked along the English-Wabigoon river system. The water system was rendered toxic by discharges from a pulp mill in Dryden, Ont. Riffel, now 82, sat down with the team to share her story.

Riffel said her brother was just nine months old when he died in September 1948. The Petiquan family was living in Quibell, a small community that would draw water from the Wabigoon River. Until they suspected something was wrong with the water, it was a good place to live, Riffel said.

“He was sick from birth,” said Riffel. “He had diarrhea all the time.”

The family's Sioux Lookout doctor blamed Donny’s death on an “incurable disease," said Riffel.

But to this day, Riffel believes it was the water from the Wabigoon River that poisoned her brother, and she has been trying to bring it to the attention of the Ontario government and media for years.

As part of this investigation, we asked federal and provincial government departments, such as Indigenous Services Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, about the premature deaths in Quibell. We were told they did not have any information. The Office of the Chief Coroner said without specific details that it could not look up how the deaths were classified.

Based on a 1969 report, uncovered by our investigation, the province had concerns about “gross” pollution levels entering the English-Wabigoon river system caused by the Dryden mill, also noting the waste from the pulp and paper mill had been entering the river since it opened in 1913.

The 1969 Water Pollution Survey of the Wabigoon River was written by the Ontario Water Resources Commission — now part of the province’s environment ministry.

This was a history the elders suspected all along.

Chapter 1

Changes in the water

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Betty Riffel remembers walking in the bush, looking at the treetops, promising to find out why her younger brother, Donny Petiquan, died. She was nine years old. Photo by Martha Troian

For the Anishinaabe people who lived along the English-Wabigoon river system, it was a place to harvest fish, a traditional staple.

When the river system became contaminated, elders such as Riffel remember the changes in the water and the sickness and death that followed.

Since 1996, Riffel has been searching for answers to what caused those deaths.

Based on her research, Riffel said she can count 10 other infants who died of violent seizures between 1947 and 1949.

She remembers babies suffering from diarrhea and persistent crying. They were all dead by a year old.

Riffel isn't the only one who remembers those days.

Evelyn Pahpasay, 82, said her mother Margaret Fobister lost two infants during the same time young Donny died.

“They died when they were babies,” Pahpasay said in a recent telephone interview about her siblings, Roy and Robert Fobister, who were both under a year old.

The family spent their summers in Quibell, especially the two younger boys and Steve Fobister, who became a revered leader and activist in Asubpeeschoseewagong. Like so many other families, they grew up eating fish from the English-Wabigoon river system.

Not only were her younger brothers sick, but Pahpasay said Steve was also frequently ill as a child. It’s something that would remain a constant ailment throughout his life. He suffered the effects of mercury poisoning and a degenerative neurological disorder and died in 2018. His family and community have pushed for an inquest into his death and have called on the federal and Ontario governments to acknowledge that the former chief’s death was a result of mercury poisoning.

Pahpasay said the water had a foul smell at the time, and as children, they were forbidden to swim in it.

In the past (and still today) the three communities of Quibell, Wabauskang and Asubpeeschoseewagong all had strong ties and family connections along the English-Wabigoon river system.

Chapter 2

‘No fish were found to exist’

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The Dryden mill in 1909. The mill began production in 1913, producing more than 40 tons of unbleached kraft pulp and sheathing per day. Photo provided

When the pulp and paper mill in Dryden began, it would become part of a booming industry.

Kraft mills such as the one in Dryden, called Dryden Paper Company Limited back then, were using chemicals such as sulfur sodium sulfate and sodium hydroxide.

“Kraft paper is different,” said Mark Kulhberg, a professor in history at Laurentian University.

“Kraft pulp and kraft paper are made using more chemicals than other products, such as newsprint.”

This process created large amounts of effluent, or wastewater, which was later released into the waterways.

Miriam Diamond, an earth sciences professor at the University of Toronto, also pointed to other toxic byproducts generated from kraft mills.

“The bleaching process would have created chlorinated dioxins and furans,” said Diamond.

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.

Growing up in Quibell as a child, Riffel remembers the water leaving foam or a green substance on the shores and what looked like black tar in the water.

“You used to have to swish the pail to clear it,” said Riffel. And then came the stories about the fish.

In the 1969 report, the Ontario Water Resources Commission cited a Department of Lands report done more than a decade earlier that revealed the “gross pollution” of the Wabigoon River and said “no fish were found to exist to a distance of approximately 40 miles downstream from Dryden.”

The few people who were able to catch fish became sick when they ate them, according to recently elected Chief Bill Petiquan of Wabauskang First Nation.

Petiquan was born in Quibell in 1956, and he remembers his mother Betty saying they used to eat the fish from the river.

“It's probably how some of the people here end up having problems with their stomachs,” said Petiquan.

Riffel remembers even the animals suffering.

“They’d fall, and some of them never got up. They just died,” said Riffel.

She remembers animals having seizures and some with bone deformities, such as arched backs or misshapen limbs.

Chapter 3

Then the mercury came

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The railway once brought families, like the Petiquans, to Quibell. In the 1960s, the suicides began, and some community members used the looming CN bridge to rid their mental and physical trauma. Photo by Tricia Chan

In the 1960s, the bodies of community members, including animals, were found at the bottom of a cliff near the CN Railway track.

The tribulations of the Wabauskang people continued when they had no place to live.

According to Riffel, during the early 1960s, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, as it was called back then, wanted the Wabauskang people to leave the Quibell area, with some community members resisting.

Years later, their government-owned homes were mysteriously burned to the ground, forcing the people to relocate.

“All they said was that taxes weren’t paid, or something like that,” Riffel said about the department.

Multiple federal departments and provincial ministries said they could not comment about the burned homes in Quibell and suggested contacting the federal or provincial archives.

Library and Archives Canada could not provide answers, but instead suggested a list of files and to submit a federal access-to-information request, a lengthy process riddled with delays and the subject of many complaints.

Betty Riffel holds up a piece of paper showing where family homes once stood in Quibell, only to be mysteriously burned to the ground in the 1960s. Photo by Martha Troian

In 1969, Ontario Water Resources Commission reported pollution in the Wabigoon River caused the disappearance of activities such as sport and commercial fishing, agricultural utilization, boating and esthetic enjoyment.

The report seemed to discount the impact a polluted river system would have on the communities dependent on them.

“(It’s like) the Native people were just in the way, the pollution was running through there, and ‘it’s not our fault they’re living there, they should be living somewhere else where the water is clean,’” said Chief Petiquan.

In 1970, the province announced the English-Wabigoon river system had been contaminated with 10 tonnes of untreated mercury since 1962. A provincial order, issued by the commission and approved by the Ministry of Energy and Resources Management, forced Reed Limited’s Dryden Paper Company to reduce mercury levels in its operation.

The mercury travelled for at least 250 kilometres. Several other Indigenous communities, such as Asubpeeschoseewagong and Wabaseemoong, were also impacted.

“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 Brian Branfireun, a biology professor at Western University.

By 1975, news reports documented cats from Asubpeeschoseewagong and Wabaseemoong that were “ravaged by mercury” and were seen convulsing after eating fish from Grassy Lake, part of the English-Wabigoon river system.

A 1975 article documents mercury poisoning in cats in Grassy Narrows First Nation. July 18, 1975. The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada)

“Why didn’t somebody reach out then … and say, ‘Hey, your family was being poisoned,’” said Della Van Wynen, a band councillor at Wabauskang First Nation.

“It’s really upsetting.”

Chapter 4


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Betty Riffel said members of the Wabauskang First Nation should have been compensated for the poisonings if the issue was handled the “right way,” but those members have since died. Photo by Anushka Yadav

Through a settlement act finalized in 1986, the Asubpeeschoseewagong and Wabaseemoong First Nations started to receive compensation for mercury poisoning.

The act created the Mercury Disability Fund to allow the two First Nations to apply for compensation if they had or developed symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning.

Each community was to receive $1 million.

Wabauskang First Nation was never part of the settlement. The First Nation says it was left out despite enduring decades-long water contamination in the early days.

Even though families living in Quibell were closer to the mill site than the other two communities that received compensation, Riffel said her community did not even learn about the contamination until the 1980s.

Asked why Wabauskang First Nation was left out, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) wrote the two communities “initiated discussions on the settlement” and the Wabauskang First Nation would be the best place to ask.

The province of Ontario has reportedly ruled the First Nation was left out because it was in a separate watershed.

“We have never received any compensation or even acknowledgment from Canada or Ontario of what was done to us,” Riffel wrote in a 2012 letter to the Canadian media in a quest for government support. “We attempted to get both governments to address our problems many times, but we have been ignored. Canada told us it was nothing to do with them. Ontario told us there was no money to help us.”

At the time, the letter gained some media attention, but not much else. More than nine years later, Riffel’s fight for compensation continues.

Since the early 2000s, the community has conducted a variety of tests for contamination.

Today, Wabauskang First Nation is part of the English-Wabigoon Rivers Remediation Trust Panel, an $85-million provincial trust fund to help remediate the river that is unrelated to Riffel’s compensation fight.

Both Riffel and Alissa Van Wynen were invited to sit on the panel that studies and plans for the cleanup of contaminated English-Wabigoon river system.

Van Wynen, a former environmental adviser from Wabauskang First Nation, said many studies have indicated contaminants existed in the river system pre-dating the mercury dump.

“The whole focus is on mercury, but there’s other contaminants, and that’s what Wabauskang is trying to get out there,” said Van Wynen. “We’d like to have some kind of recognition and acknowledgment from the government that there are other contaminants that poisoned our people.”

From 2002 to 2009, Asubpeeschoseewagong and Wabaseemoong tested traditional meat from their territories and found high levels of furans and dioxins.

Asked whether Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks ever tested wild meat for furans and dioxins, a media spokesperson simply wrote no.

After more than 70 years, Riffel has waited a long time to see one thing.

“Recognition … we were the victims of some kind of contamination,” said Riffel.

The elders would also like to see a nursing home and a memorial in Quibell to honour the lives lost to industrial pollution.

A media spokesperson with the Ministry of Long Term Care wrote that no applications for a nursing home in Dryden had been submitted in 2020. ISC also wrote it is not in discussions with the community about a nursing home.

As for a memorial site, in an email, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs wrote, “There are no current plans for memorialization at any sites in the watershed.”

Anna Banerji said the government is failing to provide for Indigenous people. Photo supplied

Dr. Anna Banerji, a professor at Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said Indigenous people and rural and marginalized communities have a shared history of inequality.

“It’s what I would call an apartheid system, where you get resources based on race," said Banerji.

Banerji said the government is failing to provide for Indigenous communities.

“Somewhere down the line, we’re going to have to make a stand on it and prove our point and let the world know that we’ve been put through a lot of crap, too,” said Chief Petiquan.

As for Riffel, she is concerned about how much time she has left to keep her promise.

“We lost a lot of our people, (they) should have been compensated," said Riffel.

“(They are) just waiting for us to die."

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