Ontario introduces legislation to secure $85M for mercury cleanup near 2 First Nations


Committment part of provincial Liberals’ fall economic statement

The Ontario government says it will secure in a trust $85 million to fund mercury cleanup and remediation efforts in the English-Wabigoon River system in northwestern Ontario.

The money was first announced by the province in June, 2017.

The trust fund pledge was made as part of the Liberals’ fall economic statement, tabled on Tuesday. The statement typically serves as a mid-year tweak to the budget.

“This legislation is a historic milestone in my people’s long fight to make our poisoned river flow with life again and to gain justice for our people,” Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Simon Fobister was quoted as saying in a written release issued by the community. “I applaud this action and I call on Ontario to honour its promises by following our leadership to ensure a quick and complete clean-up.”

The trust is to be set up when the legislation receives royal assent.

Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations have been dealing with the longstanding health effects of mercury poisoning since a mill in Dryden, Ont. — then owned by Reed Paper — dumped effluent from an on-site chemical plant into the nearby river. The two affected communities are downstream from the mill.

More than 90 per cent of the population in the communities show signs of mercury poisoning, according to research released in September 2016 by Japanese experts who have been studying the health of people there for decades.

In June, the province announced $85 million to clean up industrial mercury contamination after committing to a clean-up in February. The province has said that work will start in 2018, after pre-remediation preparation work is complete.

Putting the funds into a trust effectively locks the money in for its intended use, regardless of any changes in provincial budget priorities on a year-to-year basis.

Fobister has previously called for such an arrangement, telling CBC News in June it would ensure the promise to clean up the poisoned river “is fulfilled no matter who is in power.”

The legislation, once passed, will see a panel established that will be charged with making spending decisions by a majority vote. It will contain two seats each for Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong; Ontario’s environment minister can also appoint up to two members “to represent the interests of Ontario on the panel.”

“I honour the many Grassy Narrows people who fought tirelessly to achieve this, and those who have passed on before their time,” Fobister said. “Grassy Narrows will remain vigilant until our fish are safe to eat and our people have the dignified support and care that they sorely need.”