Thunder Bay

Ontario's sitting parties pledge to help Grassy Narrows after release of health report, but details vary

Ontario's three sitting parties all say they'll help residents of a northwestern Ontario First Nation after the release of a health report detailing how the community struggles with decades of mercury poisoning.

Health report released in May called for quick government action to help residents

The leaders of Ontario's three sitting parties have all pledged some kind of help for Grassy Narrows First Nation in the wake of a new community health report. (David Donnelly photos/CBC)

Ontario's three sitting parties all say they'll help residents of a northwestern Ontario First Nation after the release of a health report detailing how the community struggles with decades of mercury poisoning.

The report, co-authored by Donna Mergler, an environmental health expert, studied the fallout of eating fish caught from nearby waterways, which were contaminated by decades-old industrial pollution.

The study also made several recommendations for government action, including remediation of the poisoned river and more locally-available and specialized help for residents suffering from a variety of debilitating physical and mental health problems.

In addition, the report called for help to turn around the community's collapsed economy, after the closure of a commercial fishery and dwindling opportunities for fishing guides and related work, as well as stable programs to better ensure food security.

After the report was released, Rudy Turtle, the recently-elected chief of Grassy Narrows, appealed to the leaders of the Liberals, PCs and NDP to "do something."

"I call upon the three provincial leader candidates," he said. "This is ... a good time for them to step forward and say that 'we're going to help.'"

Mercury was dumped into the English-Wabigoon River system by Reed Paper, former owners of the mill in Dryden, Ont., which is upstream of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations, in the 1960s and early 1970s. The legacy pollution has never been cleaned up, despite calls for action dating back more than 30 years.

In 2017, the Liberals committed $85 million towards cleanup efforts and, later that year, introduced legislation to secure the money, regardless of a change in government or shift in priorities.

The Ministry of Environment said work is still being done to determine specific contaminated sites and establish mercury levels in sediment and fish. Additionally, the ministry said the Dryden mill site itself is still being studied after renewed concerns it could be an ongoing source of the toxic heavy metal leaching into the water.

Turtle told CBC News that work will continue over the summer.

Asked how the party would further respond to Mergler's report and its recommendations, the Liberals pointed to the river cleanup funding commitment and the beginnings of remediation work. In a statement, the party also said it's committed more than $15 million over the next three years for mercury disability support payments.

The party's platform, likewise, included the $85 million.

"We all agree that more needs to be done to help the people of Grassy Narrows," the statement said.
Grassy Narrows is located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora, Ont. (Canadian Press)

The NDP released a statement following the public release of Mergler's study, committing to "fully" implement its recommendations, and saying that "governments of all stripes" have failed to properly address the problem.

The party's platform also committed to cleaning the river and called for provincial funding for a mercury treatment centre and an additional $12 million for retroactive payments for mercury-related disability claims.

In a statement, the PCs acknowledged that the mercury pollution in the English-Wabigoon River system has been "an ongoing problem for decades and a failure of the government."

The party said it is committed to cleaning up the contamination "as quickly as possible," and "will work to ensure everyone receives high-quality care."

The PC platform, released about a week prior to the election, did not mention Grassy Narrows specifically.

Turtle told CBC News he hasn't heard anything from the three parties since the report was released, adding that, out of the leaders, only Andrea Horwath has recently visited Grassy Narrows, met with him and offered some specific commitments.

"I know ... when they heard about the health survey, all three of them made their commitments to continue working with us," he said. "But since the press conference (where the report was released publicly), I haven't personally heard anything from anyone."

With files from Jody Porter