The incomprehensible suicide of a child in Grassy Narrows

Did decades of mercury poisoning play a role in Azraya Kokopenace's suicide?

Her name was Azraya Kokopenace, and she was only 14 years old when she took her life. 

Police had left the Grassy Narrows First Nation youth at the hospital in Kenora on April 15. She was found dead in nearby woods two days later.

Fear followed disbelief, and soon there were other suicides and attempted suicides in her tight-knit community in northwestern Ontario. 

Much has been written about the tragic events in Grassy Narrows that date back to the 1960s. Over that decade, the Reed Paper pulp mill near Dryden dumped some 9,000 kilograms of mercury-laced chemicals into the Wabigoon-English River system that is the First Nation’s lifeblood. Mercury poisoning has contaminated both the water and the fish, the community’s main food source. 

Despite calls from locals and environmentalists to clean up the river, the pollution has been left to fester for more than 40 years. Last month, a report co-authored by John Rudd, a key research scientist for the provincial government’s English-Wabigoon River Steering Committee in the 1980s, concluded that remediation could still bring mercury down to safe levels in the river system. (See sidebar). Those findings are backed by the David Suzuki Foundation.

But the province seems mostly unconvinced that anything can be done to safely clean up the mess. 

Before Rudd’s report, the only major scientific inquiry into mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows was undertaken by a group of Japanese scientists, first in 1975 and again in a 2010 follow-up. 

The Japanese wanted to gather information on mercury poisoning following a similar disaster in Minamata, Japan, that came to light in 1956. For almost 35 years, a chemical company had dumped extraordinary amounts of mercury into wastewater there, eventually poisoning sea life and causing neurological and physiological disease in humans who ate the fish. The situation in Grassy Narrows is almost a mirror image of what occurred in Minamata. 

The lengthy study by the Japanese scientists concluded that mercury poisoning was the cause of a number of illnesses occurring over several generations. Interestingly, the investigation showed the percentage of Grassy Narrows residents experiencing depression (13 per cent) was greater in 2010 than in 1975.

Of those tested in 2010, 20 per cent were thought to have “emotional and mental disturbances” including depression and anxiety. 

The study went on to speculate that the reason for this surprising increase might be related to “the long period of time passed…, little official recognition of the disease… and low understanding of the mental tests.”

Indeed, to this day neither the provincial nor federal government has acknowledged the health effects of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, even though scientific evidence points to malformed infants, muscular dystrophy and mental illness, including severe depression, especially among young people on the reserve.

As recently as last year, a study commissioned by the provincial government and Grassy Narrows suggested mercury levels are continuing to rise in some area lakes. It recommended a re-evaluation of guidelines for fish consumption, as well as a consideration of the effects of logging on mercury levels.

Did decades of mercury poisoning play a role in Azraya Kokopenace’s suicide? 

Kokopenace was known to plunge into deep depressions that became even more severe after her brother Calvin’s death a few years ago from health complications associated with mercury poisoning. 

Her parents found it more and more difficult to cope with her. In and out of foster care, she became a chronic runaway, which eventually led to confrontations with police. 

It was shortly after an altercation on April 15 that Kokopenace went missing from the Kenora Children’s Aid Society, where she’d been sent for the second time in less than a month. The OPP removed her from a group of friends and took her to the Kenora District Hospital. She was left there without sending word to her care providers or parents, despite the fact that she was a juvenile.

The hospital was aware that she was severely depressed and a chronic runaway, yet she somehow managed to walk out at around midnight.

According to her father, Marlin Kokopenace, she was seen wandering into the woods. Authorities failed to undertake an exhaustive search. Tragically, she was found a block and a half from the hospital – not by the police, but by members of the Bear Clan Patrol from Winnipeg. She had taken her own life.

So many questions and so few answers.

Bernie M. Farber is executive director of the Mosaic Institute, which is working with the Chiefs of Ontario to develop reconciliation initiatives focusing on First Nations genocide and survivor stories. | @nowtoronto

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