Ottawa working on health facility plans for 2 First Nations suffering from mercury poisoning

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says two Ontario First Nations still suffering from the impacts of mercury poisoning in their territory will get the “health facilities they need” after a planned study.

'Our people are very sick,' says Grassy Narrows First nation elder

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says two Ontario First Nations still suffering from the impacts of mercury poisoning in their territory will get the "health facilities they need" after a planned study.  

Philpott said Tuesday she is scheduled to meet Wednesday with the chiefs of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, two Northwestern Ontario communities that have suffered from mercury contamination in their territory.

"Clearly there is still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done in terms of addressing the issues in those two communities," said Philpott.

"We have made a commitment to be there for these communities in making sure they have the health facilities they need."

Ottawa and Queen's Park have known about mercury poisoning and its impacts on the two communities for decades.

The Reed Paper mill, which operated in Dryden, Ont., dumped several tons of mercury into the Wabigoon River between the 1960s and 1970s. Mercury continues to sicken the people of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, who once depended on fish from the Wabigoon River.

Philpott, who spoke to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, said she understands the two First Nations have undergone "trauma" as a result of mercury poisoning. However, she said her officials still need more information before moving ahead with the communities' request for a health centre specifically designed to deal with patients suffering from mercury poisoning.

Philpott said officials are still unclear whether the First Nations want an outpatient facility or inpatient facility and what sorts of speciality services they require.

"I don't think we have answers to these questions yet," said Philpott. 

"Going forward, we will do the right thing."

Philpott said her department is funding a feasibility study to determine what is needed.

More than 90 per cent of the population in both communities suffers from mercury poisoning, according to research by Japanese experts.

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister expressed frustration with Ottawa and Queen's Park over his community's request for a treatment centre for mercury poisoning. (CBC)

'Just like a dog chases its tail around'

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister expressed frustration during a news conference Tuesday over what he saw as Ottawa and Queen's Park's inaction on getting his community the health services they need to deal with the still persistent health impacts of mercury poisoning.

"It's just like a dog chases its tail around, around and around, but never catches up to its tail," said Fobister at the news conference held in Toronto.

"This is what's been happening with our demand for this mercury home and treatment centre."

Fobister wants the two governments to fund a centre specifically designed to deal with mercury-related health problems in his First Nation.

Ontario's Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister David Zimmer will also attend Wednesday's meeting with Philpott and the two First Nations.

A statement released Tuesday afternoon by Zimmer's office said Ontario is already providing $85 million for the remediation of the English-Wabigoon River systems.

"There are no quick-fix solutions. Many of these issues are historic, complex and multi-jurisdictional," said Zimmer, in the statement.

Japanese doctor Akitomo Shimoji performs a skin sensitivity test on Grassy Narrows resident Bill Fobister. Dr. Shimoji specializes in neurology and psychiatry among victims of mercury poisoning. Fobister, an elder from Grassy Narrows, said during a press conference Wednesday he is suffering from mercury poisoning. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"Even children that are not yet born will continue to suffer from mercury exposure," he said.

Grassy Narrows elder Bill Fobister said during the press conference, "Our people are very sick from mercury poisoning.

"I myself am a victim. My taste is gone, my smell is gone and my hearing is slowly depleting…. Mercury is for life. It will eventually kill us."

Concept drawings

Grassy Narrows has a clear idea of what it wants, said Simon Fobister. The community already has concept drawings of the proposed treatment centre which would house up to eight patients, plus two suites for family members who visit.

The community has also picked a spot by the water for the centre, which would rely on solar power for part of its electricity. The project has an estimated cost of $4.5 million and construction could begin by this summer if design work were to begin this winter.

Simon Fobister said he plans to extract a full commitment from Philpott and Zimmer for the project. He said he has written Prime Minister Justin Trudeau several times on the issue but received no response.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said Ottawa needs to provide a "clear unambiguous commitment" to build the requested facility.

"Promising some bucks for a feasibility study doesn't cut it," said Angus.

He said the prime minister needs to live up to the promise he made and make a firm commitment to address the suffering.

Clarifications

  • Clarification: The story has been updated to clarify a statement from Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister David Zimmer's office.
    Nov 30, 2017 11:30 AM ET