Mercury cleanup in Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemoong can shift a legacy, long-time advocate says

Judy Da Silva says many in her community won’t believe remediation will happen until it starts

A long-time advocate for Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario says many in the community are waiting for signs of actual remediation before they believe promised mercury cleanup will happen.

Judy Da Silva, who is also the First Nation’s environmental health co-ordinator, pointed to a recent community meeting where there was visible frustration and a sense of disbelief that the pollution which has devastated the community, as well as Wabaseemoong, will ever be a thing of the past.

“They’re saying ‘we’ll never believe you that you’re going to clean the river,'” she said. “They won’t believe it until they see machines out there or until they start seeing mercury levels going down.”

Scientists “have come and gone,” in the months since the province announced in June its commitment to, and money towards, remediation, Da Silva said. Ontario said cleanup would start early in 2018.

The skepticism that Da Silva said is being felt in Grassy Narrows is not without merit, according to findings in a report released Tuesday by Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner. Dianne Saxe’s annual report on environmental protection slammed “decades of inaction,” by Queen’s Park before announcements earlier this year that the province will commit to a cleanup.

The document chronicled the history and current state of the historic pollution of the English-Wabigoon River system and its effects on Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations.

The report laid bare what people in Grassy Narrows have known for a long time, Da Silva said, adding that she was still pleased to hear about its findings. “It’s like, whoa, finally, somebody’s listening, somebody hears us,” she said.

“For me, it’s like, it’s a long time coming for this acknowledgement,” she said. “This is what First Nations have known for so many years.”

The river system that flows through the two communities was polluted by mercury dumped into the water by Reed Paper in Dryden, Ont., in the 1960s and early 1970s. It hasn’t been cleaned up despite calls for action dating back more than 30 years.

Should that happen, Da Silva said, it has the potential to do a lot of good in her community.

“I think then people will believe,” she said. “Right now, the youth, the children, it’s kind of like their legacy that they’re going to see in their lifetime.”

“Once the cleanup starts and these children that are growing up will see the positivity and the feeling will shift from hopelessness to hopeful,” she said.