Thunder Bay

'Christmas came early': Ottawa commits to Grassy Narrows mercury treatment centre

Ottawa has committed to a specialized medical treatment facility for people suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning in a northern Ontario First Nation.

Commitment made by Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott on Wednesday

The federal government has committed to a medical treatment facility in Grassy Narrows for people suffering the effects of mercury poisoning. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Ottawa has committed to a specialized medical treatment facility for people suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning in a northern Ontario First Nation.

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott made the commitment Wednesday when she met with representatives from Grassy Narrows First Nation in Toronto.

"We had a very good meeting to discuss the needs of their community," Philpott told reporters later in the day in Ottawa. "We committed to...address[ing] a number of health issues in the community that are related to the exposure to mercury."

"Christmas came early," Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister told CBC News. "It's to a point now where finally the province and the federal government have shown some resolve and some real commitment to meeting our demands or concerns."

The community had renewed calls for a facility close to home to treat those suffering from the effects of mercury-related illnesses. Research by Japanese experts has shown that 90 per cent of the population of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations show signs of poisoning by the chemical element.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott made the commitment while meeting with representatives from Grassy Narrows on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Toxic levels of mercury entered the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s and early 1970s when Reed Paper — former owners of the mill in Dryden, Ont. — dumped thousands of kilograms of contaminated effluent into the waterway.

People subsequently became sick by eating fish — a staple in their diet — caught from the river.

Ontario has already committed $85 million towards remediation of the waterway.

Fobister said he finally got the confirmation for the treatment centre that he was looking for.
Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister says "Christmas came early" after being told his community will get a treatment centre for mercury poisoning. (CBC)

"Minister Philpott said that the Government of Canada is willing to build us a mercury home and treatment centre for our community," he said. "It's just wonderful news for our people and our community."

Fobister added that they already have a conceptual design of what the facility could look like but it has to be finalized and costs determined. He said that should happen in the next six months.

"I've asked them to do more work in terms of establishing, more clearly, what the needs of the community are but  we have made a commitment to the building of the facility," Philpott said.

Fobister said, if all goes well, he hopes to hold a groundbreaking ceremony by next summer.