Ontario budget leaves mercury cleanup near Grassy Narrows First Nation 'in doubt', chief says

The 2017 provincial budget falls short on commitments to clean up the mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River, Grassy Narrows's chief says.

Province says $2.1 million has recently been committed for 'pre-remediation science'

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister says he wants a binding commitment from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to clean up the English-Wabigoon River. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The 2017 provincial budget falls short on commitments to clean up mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River that's poisoning residents of two northwestern Ontario First Nations, the chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation says.

"This budget leaves the future of my people in doubt," Chief Simon Fobister said in a news release issued Friday. "There is nothing in here for cleaning the river that is our life-blood, and nothing for the healing of our people."

Fobister called on Premier Kathleen Wynne to "stand by her word," and enter into a binding agreement with the community to clean up the river that flows through Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations.
More than 90 per cent of the populations of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations show signs of mercury poisoning, according to research released in 2016. (Canadian Press)

Mercury was dumped into the river by Reed Paper, upstream in Dryden, Ont., in the 1960s and early 1970s.

That has resulted in more than 90 per cent of the population in the communities showing signs of mercury poisoning, according to research released in September, 2016 by Japanese experts who have been studying the health of people there for decades.

The commercial fishery in Grassy Narrows was also forced to close due to the contamination, crippling the community's economy.

In February, the province announced it would find and remediate all the mercury pollution in the river.

Grassy Narrows supported a plan submitted to the province by renowned mercury scientist John Rudd detailing how to begin cleaning the river by spring, 2018, the community's written release stated.

In addition, Grassy Narrows's leadership wants to see the full clean-up cost accounted for in the provincial budget, with funds to do the work placed in a trust.

Continued commitment to cleanup, studies ongoing: Ontario government

While there is no new money in the budget earmarked for the English-Wabigoon River cleanup, government officials say that doesn't mean no work is being done.

$2.1 million has been committed for necessary studies in advance of cleanup work, said Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for Ontario's environment ministry in an email to CBC News, adding that the money is in addition to $410,000 already set aside.

The province continues to work with Grassy Narrows on a work plan proposal and scientists will be back on the river this summer to do more research, he continued.

"There are many opportunities to continue to work together to identify and provide the resources needed to deliver on our commitment," he said, adding that "this work will continue."