Grassy Narrows First Nation, in northwestern Ontario, is taking legal action Monday to stop Ontario's plan to allow logging near the community's traditional territory.
Research shows that clear cutting can release methylmercury — a neurotoxin — into the environment, a pressing concern among Grassy Narrows residents already suffering mercury poisoning.
Chief Roger Fobister said the court action is necessary after Ontario turned down the First Nation's request for an individual environmental assessment of the latest forest management plan.
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"We're trying to protect our people's health here, our fundamental human rights," Fobister said.
Grassy Narrows, (also know as Asubpeeschoseewagong) will attempt to use the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect it from environmental harms.
"This forest management plan is going to violate our right to life, liberty and security of person because they're clearly dumping mercury in our river system and we expect the charter to protect us," Fobister said.
Another section of the charter will be used to argue the forestry plan disproportionately threatens the health of First Nations people who rely on fish from local waterways as a staple food.
"Either the community, individually and collectively, would continue to fish and therefore continue be exposed to mercury, or they have to set aside a central portion of their culture and not fish at all in order to protect themselves from mercury," said lawyer Joe Castrilli. "In our view that would constitute discrimination."
Castrilli, a staff lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association said the case could set a precedent for the use of the charter to protect citizens from environmental harms.
'Controlling uncontrollable government action'
The charter, with it's constitutional authority "provides a potentially powerful instrument for controlling uncontrollable government action," he said.
Grassy Narrows has tried many other ways to put an end to clear cutting.
Members of the First Nation have maintained a blockade against logging trucks since Dec. 2, 2002. There have been several rounds of negotiations with the province and another court case in which the Supreme Court ruled the provincial, not the federal government, had authority over resource management in Treaty 3 territory.
Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry was asked at a news conference in June how the province is addressing concerns about clear cutting near Grassy Narrows.
Provincial regulations will provide protection, Bill Mauro said, at the time.
Grassy Narrows Deputy Chief Randy Fobister said it's hard to put faith in a government promise of protection when the lives of people in the community are being cut short from previous exposure to mercury.
"We're not about to sit down and relax regarding the health of our people or the health of our future," he said. "We'll never give up on this mercury. No matter what the outcome is in the court, we'll still keep pushing government to fix this.
"They need to fix this mercury issue once and for all," he said.