Chief Simon Fobister wants to hold the prime minister to his pledge to help solve the mercury problem “once and for all.”
‘Trudeau is letting my people down by failing to lead on solving our mercury crisis,’ said Chief Simon Fobister. (RICK MADONIK / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is watering down a federal promise to help clean the mercury from Grassy Narrows First Nation, the chief of the northern Ontario community said.
“Trudeau is letting my people down by failing to lead on solving our mercury crisis,” Chief Simon Fobister said in a statement.
The allegation comes a day after Trudeau, at a press conference in Calgary Wednesday, said: “The Grassy Narrows issue is very much a provincial issue, but the federal government, under my leadership, is certainly very engaged with the province to ensure that we’re moving forward in the right direction.”
In his statement, Chief Fobister notes that these comments “appeared to backtrack” from the Prime Minister’s Office telling the Star in January that it would step in to help solve the mercury problem “once and for all.”
Between 1962 and 1970, the Dryden paper plant, then owned by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the river. The site of the plant is about 100 kilometres upstream from Grassy Narrows and nearby Whitedog.
Mercury contamination, a serious health risk, still plagues indigenous communities in northern Ontario.
The river has not cleaned naturally.
Recent mercury data from fish, soil dug up behind the factory and river sediment show there is likely an ongoing mercury source and the mill property is it, or near it.
In January, after the Star revealed that reporters and volunteers from environmental group Earthroots found mercury-contaminated soil behind the Dryden mill, the Prime Minister’s Office said federal officials would meet with indigenous leaders and the province to “get to the bottom of the science, and the next steps necessary to deal with this issue once and for all.”
This soil was found in an area identified by Kas Glowacki, a former mill worker who told the Star that, in 1972, he was part of a crew that “haphazardly” buried drums filled with mercury behind the old mill.
The PMO said, at the time, that federal experts are providing advice to Ontario for how contaminated sediment in the river can be cleaned up.
Chief Fobister had welcomed the PMO comments, but wanted Trudeau to commit in writing to cleaning up the mercury that has contaminated the Wabigoon River system.
“How can Trudeau say that he is reconciling with First Nations while passing the buck on cleaning up an ongoing toxic leak that has plagued our health and undermined our culture for 50 years?” Chief Fobister said, after Trudeau’s comment in Calgary this week, in the prepared statement.
The federal government needs to be more involved, in part because it has responsibilities to inland fisheries, First Nations and public health, the statement adds.
A spokesperson for Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, did not respond directly to the allegations, but said the federal government is involved in many ways.
The spokesperson said the government is working with First Nations and the province on renewing the Mercury Disability Board, which was set up in the 1980s and offers compensation to people who have mercury-poisoning symptoms.
In addition, the response said, federal experts are giving expert advice to the province on remediating mercury contamination; Health Canada is monitoring water quality and health risks to the community, as well as offering free mercury testing to residents upon request and funding a health centre “with a treatment component,” and the government is working to ratify the Minamata Convention global treaty to “protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury.”
Meanwhile, the province has announced it is “completely committed” to finding and cleaning up the mercury.
Earlier this week, Ontario Environment Minister Glen Murray said in the Legislature that the mercury problem has gone on too long.
“I think all of us in this House wish we had behaved differently over the last 50 years. I don’t think anyone has clean hands here,” he said.
When asked by NDP critic for indigenous relations, Michael Mantha, why Murray’s government had not tested sediment in front of the site of the old paper mill, Murray replied by saying the responsibility for inaction should not just fall on the provincial Liberal party of today.
“All of us were in power during those periods of time, and not one party prior to this government, when in power, took action on that. Maybe we can all have a little humility, and, hopefully, we’ll get the engineering work, the water treatment facilities — and we’ll get this fixed, and restore some respect for the people who live there, which they are owed.”
There is no suggestion that current mill owner Domtar, a pulp manufacturer several owners removed from Reed Paper, is responsible for any source of mercury.