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Mercury Poisoning Of Fish Threatens Indian Way Of Life

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      OCTOBER 1971      v02 n08 p06  
A large proportion of Canada's Indian population in remote areas is probably being poisoned to some extent by the consumption of mercury contaminated fish.

An official of the federal environment department said "This would be a logical assumption since fish is probably the most important staple food in their diets."

Surveys and tests are being carried out across the country to determine the extent of the problem.

The official said it could result in "terrible hardships" if it was decided that Indians would have to stop, or greatly reduce, their eating of fish.

A band of Cree Indians in the Lake Waswanipi area, 300 miles north of Montreal, was told to stop eating fish after it was found that the average content of mercury in their systems was 10 times higher than the national average.

Four members of the band were hospitalized in Montreal for 10 days recently when blood tests showed they had levels of mercury 20 to 30 times higher than the national average.

"Those people were in serious danger of suffering permanent physical and mental damage," the environment official admitted.

The four were kept under observation while their bodies gradually excreted the toxic metal naturally. They were released when further tests showed mercury levels in their blood to be dropping.

For the moment, the Indian affairs department has arranged for alternate foods to be made available to the Waswanipi band.

The Indians face a fundamental change in their life-styles if they will not be able to eat fish in the amounts to which they are accustomed without the risk of mercury poisoning.

On the other hand, generations of people before them have eaten the same species of fish in the same quantities.

What is known is how many may have been harmed in the past by mercury poisoning. The problem has only been recognized in Canada in the last year.

Now that the danger is known it appears the northern natives are going to have to turn to sources of protein other than fish.

Some meat is obtained by hunting and trapping, but not enough is available from this source to make up the difference.

Realistically, there appear to be two alternatives: either the Indians will have to migrate to population centres, or ignore the danger and continue eating fish.

Government officials say it would be impossible to enforce a ban on fishing in the remote areas.

While man-made mercury pollution is being stopped, there apparently has always been naturally occurring high levels of mercury in northern waters due to the rich mineral content of geological strata.

The only thing government officials hope they can do, for the moment at least, is to persuade the northern natives to reduce the amount of fish in their diets as much as possible.