The federal government says that they remain committed to building a mercury treatment facility in Grassy Narrows, while residents continue to call on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the community.

In November, former Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott announced that the federal government would fund a $170,000 feasibility study into a long-term mercury poisoning treatment centre. The facility was set to begin construction in the fall of 2018, but construction has not started.

However, Minister of Indigenous Services, Seamus O’Reagan, said in the House of Commons that the federal government is working directly with the community to continue development of the facility.

“We will support their needs, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to build a health facility. We are in regular contact with the community to advance design and construction plans of that facility. The people of Grassy Narrows have suffered for generations. We recognize the numerous health issues that the community faces to this day. I look forward to meeting with Chief Turtle to determine how we continue on this path moving forward.”

The cost of the treatment centre is estimated to be roughly $17 million, and clean-up costs are estimated to be roughly $88 million. The community is asking for the funds to be placed in a trust fund, similar to their $85 million trust from the provincial government to clean up the English and Wabigoon river systems.

It’s estimated that despite additional funding from provincial and federal governments, roughly 94 per cent of community members do not receive compensation for mercury poisoning.

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 Rudy 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.

 Frustrations with the federal government in the community are at a boiling point after a video surfaced last week, where Trudeau told a protester to leave a Liberal party fundraiser. Trudeau issued an apology to the protester shortly afterwards and refunded their contributions.

“You would have to look very long and hard to find a joke so disconnected as the Prime Minister’s decision to ridicule the people of Grassy Narrows,” said Charlie Angus of the NDP. “The decent thing to do is pick up the phone and say sorry to the community. Why is the Prime Minister hiding on this? It’s a question of his judgement.”

Angus added that Chief Turtle has told him that Trudeau did not reach out to the community or Chief Rudy Turtle directly to apologize for the remarks.

 “We acknowledge the Prime Minister’s apology however, he must be reminded of the urgency of this matter and the ongoing struggle and threats to the health of First Nations citizens because of environmental contamination for over 50 years. People are dying from mercury contamination and nothing is being done. Enough is enough,” said Chief Rudy Turtle.

“The Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek Aaki Declaration (Grassy Narrows First Nation Land Declaration) issued in October 2018 set out a number of principles including the governments of Ontario and Canada support the leaders and citizens in rebuilding our health, our way of life, and our livelihood, which have all been severely impacted by mercury and industrial logging. Prime Minister must honour this declaration and take the necessary steps immediately,” added Turtle.

 “I am very dismayed and disheartened that Prime Minister Trudeau made these deriding and disrespectful comments considering the reconciliation platform he ran on. We take the lives of our Treaty #3 people very seriously and will continue to support the work the advocates are doing on behalf of those suffering from mercury poisoning,” said Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh, Grand Chief of Grand Council Treaty #3.

“The federal government must be reminded of their 2017 promise to fund a specialized mercury treatment facility in the Grassy Narrows First Nation. Nothing has been done and our people continue to suffer. We want to see action now.”

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. 

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. 

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.

For more information:
Mamakwa calling for mercury clean-up