Thunder Bay

Grassy Narrows leadership pleased with mercury cleanup funding but says help needed for survivors

Community leaders in Grassy Narrows First Nation say they're pleased with secured provincial funding for cleanup of the mercury-contaminated English-Wabigoon River system, but more needs to be done for people already suffering from the pollution's effects.

Minister Jane Philpott's office says meeting confirmed with province, First Nations Nov. 29

Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations have been dealing with the effects of mercury poisoning for decades. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Community leaders in Grassy Narrows First Nation say they're pleased with secured provincial funding for cleanup of the mercury-contaminated English-Wabigoon River system, but more needs to be done for people already suffering from the pollution's effects.

Legislation was tabled at Queen's Park Tuesday that will lock in a trust $85 million for remediation of the river where, in the 1960s and early 1970s, a Dryden, Ont., mill — then owned by Reed Paper — dumped mercury-contaminated effluent upstream from Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (then known as Whitedog) First Nations.

"True to their word, Premier Wynne and her government came through and introduced the legislation that we wanted," Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister told CBC News. "I'm a happy camper for now as far as ... [the legislation] and that they're very serious about it."

Fobister added that several rounds of negotiations were held between First Nations leaders and the province to come up with the framework for the trust spelled out in the legislation, tabled as part of the government's fall economic statement and still requiring royal assent.

The environment ministry has said remediation work will start in 2018.

While Fobister said he's pleased with that outcome, concerns still remain over the state of the mill property itself and whether it continues to leach the toxic chemical element into the river. An industry-commissioned report showed the property has elevated levels of mercury contamination on-site, although it couldn't determine if it is making its way into the water. Further testing was recommended by the report and is ongoing, according to the province.

Additionally, Fobister said the First Nations wanted an automatic "top-up clause" for the trust, in order to cover the possible scenario where cleanup costs exceed the amount in the account. Instead, he said, should that occur, the six-member panel charged with overseeing the trust will have to present a "business case" to the legislature for more funding.

Community renews calls for mercury treatment facility

The community, located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora in northwestern Ontario, has been calling for action on a cleanup for more than 30 years. It's now also renewing a call for help for the people who live with the ongoing effects of mercury poisoning, namely funding for a specialized treatment centre and full compensation for victims.

"To have a building such as that in my community ... it's honouring my people but also saying 'yeah, we did poison your water,'" Judy Da Silva, Grassy Narrows's environmental health coordinator and a long-time advocate for the community, said of what a mercury treatment centre close to home would mean. "You can be close to your relatives to give them a quality of life."

That kind of treatment, available locally, would be "humane," she said.

"I've heard of a couple women that were just skin and bones when they died [in hospital in Kenora] and they didn't recognize their families," Da Silva continued.
Judy Da Silva is the environmental health coordinator for Grassy Narrows and a long-time advocate for the community. (CBC News)

Chief Fobister sent a letter Thursday to a number of federal representatives, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Jane Philpott, the Minister of Indigenous Services.

In it, he called on Ottawa to "act immediately to protect our community and provide us with the health and other
supports we urgently need." The letter also slammed the federal government for a lack of "concrete support."

Japanese researchers have said more than 90 per cent of the population at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations is showing signs of mercury poisoning.

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said she also wanted Ottawa's support on  "the need for additional activity apart from what we're doing in terms of cleaning up the river," adding that the federal government, First Nations and the province should be "sitting at the table."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says she wants to see a coordinated government approach to help people at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations who are sick from mercury. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A meeting featuring many of the key players will take place before the end of the month.

A spokesperson for the Minister of Indigenous Services' office told CBC News the government is "committed to finding appropriate solutions to ensure the health and safety of all First Nations," and that a meeting is scheduled on Nov. 29; it will take place in Toronto, and will consist of leadership from Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations as well as Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and Ontario's Indigenous Relations Minister David Zimmer.

Fobister said the meeting has been "three months in the making" and is intended to address ongoing concerns about the Mercury Disability Board — the body charged with determining who is suffering from mercury poisoning and the compensation they receive. Federal and provincial officials have pledged to reform it.

Only about a quarter of applicants for disability pensions are approved.

But Fobister said the meeting will also be a chance to raise other issues, including concerns over mercury potentially leaching from the Dryden mill site, as well as government support for a mercury treatment centre.

"We're going to ask some tough questions," he said.

Da Silva added that the "mercury home" issue will definitely be on the agenda.

"We already brought it up at the first leadership meeting in February in Toronto and we're going to be bringing it up again," she said. "We hope that things will happen, things will be positive to help my community."

With files from Jody Porter and Martha Troian