Thunder Bay

Justin Trudeau 'passing the buck' on mercury cleanup, Grassy Narrows chief says

The Prime Minister is wrong in his claim that cleaning up mercury contamination near two northern Ontario First Nations is a provincial matter, according to an environmental lawyer.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says cleaning up contamination near Grassy Narrows is a "provincial issue'

"Trudeau is letting my people down," Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister says in a news release issued Thursday. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

The Prime Minister is wrong in his claim that cleaning up mercury contamination near two northern Ontario First Nations is a "provincial issue", according to an environmental lawyer.

Justin Trudeau made the comments on Wednesday after the release of new research suggesting that the pulp mill property in Dryden, Ont., continues to contaminate the river upstream of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations.

Former owners of the mill are known to have dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River upstream of the First Nations during the 1960s and 70s, but the new research points to an enduring source of mercury leaking into the water.

"The federal government has extensive constitutional authority to wade in and get proactively involved in the cleanup, if it chooses to do so,"​ said Richard Lindgren, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

The chief of Grassy Narrows said Trudeau appears to be backtracking on a promise made earlier this year to deal with the mercury "once and for all." 

"Trudeau is letting my people down by failing to lead on solving our mercury crisis," Chief Simon Fobister said in a news release on Thursday. "How can Trudeau say that he is reconciling with First Nations while passing the buck on cleaning up an ongoing toxic leak that has plagued our health and undermined our culture for fifty years?"

The federal government has jurisdiction over fisheries and "extensive power" when it comes to dealing with "deleterious substances into water frequented by fish, including species that support Indigenous fisheries," Lindgren said.

The mercury contamination closed the commercial fisheries in the First Nations in the 1970s, destroying the local economy.

Mercury is also a designated substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, providing the federal government another layer of authority to act.

'Political will' 

In addition, the federal government has jurisdiction when it comes to First Nations health. Medical research released last year showed 90 per cent of the people at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong demonstrate symptoms of mercury poisoning.

Lindgren said the government is not compelled to act, even if it has the authority to do so.

"It's a matter of political priority and a matter of political will," he said. 

Ontario has committed $350,000 to environmental field work to establish a plan to cleanup the historic mercury contamination and locate and stop any current leaking from the mill site.

The province is promising to follow through on the plan with a full cleanup of the river, but it's not yet clear how long that would take, how much it would cost or who would pay for it.