Thunder Bay

Trudeau falls short on commitment to Grassy Narrows mercury problems, chief says

The chief of Grassy Narrows says both Ontario and Canada must commit to cleaning up the mercury contamination in the northern Ontario First Nation, not just further study.

PM says federal government will work with Ontario to 'remedy' mercury contamination

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister, left, and resident Judy Da Silva told a news conference in Winnipeg last June that the mercury contamination needs to be cleaned up immediately. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

The chief of Grassy Narrows says both Ontario and Canada must commit to cleaning up the mercury contamination in the northern Ontario First Nation, not just further study.

Chief Simon Fobister was responding to comments today by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a town hall meeting in Fredericton, N.B.

"We're working with the province on resolving this issue," Trudeau said. "My government is committed to ending boil water advisories across this country."

The Prime Minister's Office followed up in a statement to CBC News on Tuesday.

"Every Canadian, every Indigenous person, should expect access to clean and reliable drinking water," said the statement from Trudeau's press secretary, Cameron Ahmad. 

"This is a major priority for ministers [Jane] Philpott and [Carolyn] Bennett, who will continue working closely with the province of Ontario and the First Nations to get to the bottom of the science, and the next steps necessary to deal with this issue once and for all.

"We are all aware of the issue, and are doing our part to help remedy it."

But the decades-old mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows and nearby Wabaseemoong First Nations affects the food chain, poisoning the people, not the water, Fobister said.

"I'm very frustrated that two levels of government don't take the extra step further to say, after the study, we're committed to cleaning it up, no matter what the costs," he said. 

A recent study by Japanese experts shows 90 per cent of the people at Grassy Narrows experience symptoms of mercury poisoning. 

9,000 kilograms of mercury

The chemical plant of the Reed Paper mill in Dryden, Ont., upstream of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, dumped more than 9,000 kilograms of mercury in the English-Wabigoon River system between 1962 and 1970.

An Ontario-funded report last May said the mercury, can, and should, be cleaned up. 

That work needs to be undertaken immediately, Fobister said.

"I know both levels of government are very supportive of other major industrial activity, like the building of pipelines," he said. "But their credibility suffers at this moment when they haven't even cleaned up this contamination that was caused by industrial activity.

So how can the citizens of Canada and Ontario have any confidence in their leadership." 

Last year's report on the potential for a clean up by mercury scientist John Rudd, also pointed to an on-going source of mercury contamination in the Wabigoon River system.

A former worker came forward last summer to point out what he says is a hidden mercury dump near the mill site.

The Ontario Public Interest Research Group published details about missing mercury from the mill in the years between 1962 and 1976. 

"There are company records of a further 13,600 kilograms of mercury which entered the plant prior to 1976, but for which nobody can account: it remains in the plant or emerged undetected," says a report by the research group.

Fobister said further study is required to pinpoint the source of the continuing contamination, but that research should not prevent the government from committing to a full clean up.