Ontario will spend $85 million to clean up industrial mercury contamination that is poisoning the people at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations in northwestern Ontario, Environment Minister Glen Murray announced on Tuesday.
The mercury was dumped into the river by Reed Paper, upstream of the First Nations in Dryden, Ont., in the 1960s and early 1970s. It has never been cleaned up.
That has resulted in more than 90 per cent of the population in the communities showing signs of mercury poisoning, according to research released in September 2016 by Japanese experts who have been studying the health of people there for decades.
"This really is a historic day in Ontario," Murray told CBC News in an interview. "The funding is there and it's going to be spent right away."
Remediation starts next year
Preparation work on the river will be completed this summer with remediation starting in early 2018, Murray said. The work will follow the course set by scientist John Rudd and be done in partnership with both First Nations, he said.
An additional $2.7 million is budgeted to accelerate work already underway on the river, according to the province.
Murray said the announcement came after two months of intensive work with the chiefs of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong.
"This river is the lifeblood of my people," said Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister in a statement on Tuesday evening. "For too long we have suffered from this preventable tragedy. May this be the beginning of a new era of hope for my people, and may justice flow at long last."
'Egregious historic tragedy'
"We were really racing to get it into cabinet and into treasury board before the people went away [for the summer]," Murray said of the timing of the surprise announcement on Tuesday. "It's now real and we can start spending money."
For years, people at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong have been pressing for the contamination to be cleaned up and for better health care for people suffering from mercury poisoning.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne recognized the "egregious historic tragedy," Murray said.
"This is a turning point," he said. "This is an omen that we can start treating First Nations with respect. If we can fix this one, maybe we can get a lot more justice and reconciliation in the future."
Fobister said he's pleased with the commitment but still worried, after such a long fight, that a change in government could cause the funding to dry up.
"Now we need to put the funds into a trust to make sure that this promise is fulfilled no matter who is in power," he said.