Ontario will test mercury levels in waterways near Grassy Narrows First Nation

Ontario agreed to spend $300,000 to test mercury levels in fish and in the sediment of the English and Wabigoon River system following a meeting Monday between two Liberal cabinet ministers and leaders of the Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Province commits $300,000 for 'field work' after 2 ministers meet First Nation

Protesters gathered outside of Queen's Park last Thursday, due to concerns about mercury contamination in the water in Grassy Narrows First Nation. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

Ontario agreed to spend $300,000 to test mercury levels in fish and in the sediment of the English and Wabigoon River system following a meeting Monday between two Liberal cabinet ministers and leaders of the Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Environment Minister Glen Murray and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister David Zimmer issued a statement following their visit to the remote northern community near the Manitoba border, saying the province would work with Grassy Narrows on the English-Wabigoon Remediation Project.

The initial mercury testing will take place between Dryden and Ball Lake.

"This field work has been identified by the Grassy Narrows council as their top priority and we will work with the community to ensure that it begins immediately," the ministers said.

A chemical plant in Dryden dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury in local waterways in the 1960s, but a recent report found levels remain dangerously high even though the plant closed in the 1970s, and suggested there may be an ongoing source of contamination.

"We agreed on the need for immediate and collaborative action based on the recommendations of the recently released report prepared for Grassy Narrows First Nation," the ministers said.

The government promised the remediation project "will consider traditional ecological knowledge" and respect for the traditions and wisdom of the local First Nation leadership.

It also vowed to "get to the bottom" of claims by a former worker at the Dryden plant who said he helped bury 50 barrels of mercury and salt at the long defunct operation.

Wynne doesn't want to worsen situation

"We will conduct a geophysical assessment of the area that will allow us to verify whether barrels are buried beneath the surface," said the ministers.

"Our findings will be shared with the community as soon as possible, and we will take immediate action if evidence confirms the existence of any of the buried barrels or other new sources of mercury contamination at this site."

Earlier Monday, Premier Kathleen Wynne said she wanted to clean up the mercury contamination that has plagued Grassy Narrows for decades, but doesn't want to make the situation worse.

"I am deadly serious about this," said Wynne. "I want this to happen, but I am not going to go ahead unless we're sure that we're not going to do more damage."

Zimmer and Murray's statement said the field testing will provide "the critical information needed to develop options to remediate the English-Wabigoon River system."

"Ontario will work with Chief (Simon) Fobister and the community to develop this key piece," the statement said.

Family calls for inquest

Meanwhile, a Grassy Narrows family wrote Wynne asking for a coroner's inquest into the suicide of 14-year-old Azraya
Ackabee-Kokopenace, who took her life after the death of her brother Calvin, 17, who suffered from mercury poisoning and muscular dystrophy.

In April, Azraya was out past curfew at the group home where she lived, was picked up by police and dropped at the Kenora hospital, where she walked away at about midnight. Two days later, she was found dead in the woods across the road from the hospital.

"The same system that took her out of her community and away from her family is the system that failed her," Marlin Kokopenace, Azraya's father, said in a release.

"We want that system held accountable, and we want it to change."

New Democrat MPP Sarah Campbell also wants an inquest, and said it's "heartbreaking for any parent to know that their child can simply walk away, never to be seen alive again, when they were supposedly in the care of child services and the hospital."

But Wynne said it wasn't up to her to call an inquest.

"We don't direct the coroner," she said. "The coroner will make that decision."