The first step towards developing a mercury treatment centre for Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemong Independent members will have to be taken another day.

On May 29, federal Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Reagan and Kenora MP Bob Nault travelled to Grassy Narrows, with the expectation of signing a memorandum of agreement to outline the path forward to deal with the long-term health needs of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemong, which have been impacted by mercury exposure.

Despite a 4.5 hour-long meeting between the federal representatives and community leaders, the signing of the document did not take place. The community is expecting a revised proposal as soon as possible.

“This is what happens sometimes in negotiations. We landed, and we quickly realized that we didn’t have a deal. We will keep working at it. I think we’re really close,” said O’Reagan. “We have to really work hard at this. It’s really important.”

The facility was set to begin construction in the fall of 2018, but work has not started. The cost of the treatment centre is estimated to be roughly $17 million, and mercury clean-up costs are estimated to be roughly $88.7 million.

In March, Grassy Narrows sent a letter to the federal government calling for $88.7 million to be placed into a trust fund for the development costs, maintenance and operating costs for the facility over 30 years. Former Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott committed the federal government to build the facility in 2017.

The two First Nations do have $85 million in a trust fund from the provincial government to remediate the English and Wabigoon river system. The system has been contaminated with mercury since the 1950’s, leading to generations of community members dealing with significant health and social issues.

According to the 1986 settlement agreement, the mercury pollution is the result of discharge from the Reed Paper company's operation in Dryden, which used mercury in their bleaching process for making paper. The agreement dealt with the pollution between 1963 and 1970. The mill stopped using mercury in 1975, but mercury is still leaching into the river system. 

Altogether, an estimated 9 to 11 tonnes of mercury were released into the water. Mercury also reached the river system when, starting in the 1950's, the Ontario and federal governments built multiple hydroelectric dams on the Wabigoon-English River system. The dam reservoirs released mercury from soil into the watercourse. 

Over three years ago, Grassy Narrows Chief Turtle called for an investigation into the mercury poisoning of the soil and the river. The work to dig trenches to investigate the location, as well as groundwater sampling, has been estimated by a third-party to cost roughly $100,000, and the work would take roughly four weeks to complete. Work has not started.

The Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek Community Health Assessment Report from December, 2018 revealed that Grassy Narrows adults report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts compared to other First Nation adults, and has found that community members under the age of 19 had higher rates of mercury-related problems compared to other First Nation communities. 

The report found that Grassy Narrows youth were twice as likely to not thrive and to have emotional or behavioural issues, and three times as likely to have at least one condition that may impact school performance – such as speech or language difficulties and learning disabilities. Other conditions include attention deficit disorder, allergies, asthma, eczema, anxiety, depression, anemia, visual problems, and ear infections.

In their research, Japanese doctors have estimated that more than 90 per cent of the First Nation members at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseeomoong show signs of mercury poisoning. Health Canada stopped the regular monitoring of mercury levels in the Grassy Narrows community in 1999. Only 6 per cent of community members receive mercury poisoning compensation.

In the waters around Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, scientists have also noted that mercury contamination may be to blame for declines in otter and mink populations. Correlations have also been observed in the area between high mercury levels and abnormalities in domestic cats and turkey vultures.

Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong have signed a declaration between the two communities. It calls for equal partnership between the two parties on any decisions that may arise relating to the river system or any use of resources in the area.

For more information:
A ‘long, difficult journey’ for Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemoong
Treaty #3 ‘wants action’ on mercury treatment centre