OTTAWA — New money for a treatment centre for those living with the effects of chronic mercury poisoning comes as a ray of hope for a northern Ontario First Nation that has spent the past six decades in the shadow of a decades-old water contamination scandal.
“Our community members have suffered for so long,” Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Randy Fobister said in a recent interview.
“It’s great news for a whole community … We’re finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”
Residents of Grassy Narrows First Nation, about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora, Ont., have grappled with long-standing mental and physical health issues due to toxic mercury levels in the nearby English-Wabigoon River. So have many in Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, also known as Whitedog First Nation, about 130 kilometres away.
After years of advocacy by the communities, Ottawa reached agreements with both Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong earlier this year. The federal government committed up to $19.5 million to each community for the construction of facilities to meet the needs of residents living with methylmercury poisoning.
Now, Ottawa has greatly increased the size of the commitment.
The fall economic statement released last week saw the Liberal government earmark $200 million up to fiscal 2024-25, plus $300,000 ongoing, to support the building and operation of mercury treatment centres in both communities.
The fiscal update said the funding, set to start flowing in fiscal 2021-22, would allow community members from both Wabaseemong and Grassy Narrows, also known as Asubpeeschoseewagong, to stay close to home while receiving treatment.
Hundreds of residents have suffered chronic health problems related to mercury exposure since the 1960s, when a chemical plant at the Reed Paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the river community members rely on for fishing.
“From birth, even today, you get stuff that affects the nerves,” Fobister said. “It affects the youth (with) common signs of symptoms like what you get from mercury poisoning like rashes.”
Last week, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller described the lack of action on the local mercury contamination as “an aberration in our history.”
Miller said previous plans for treatment facilities were delayed as Indigenous communities pushed for more comprehensive federal funding.
“What we found out quite quickly was that there was no trust between Grassy Narrows and the government of Canada, and in some senses, rightly so,” he said.
“Part of that trust is putting the money away in a trust (fund) to be used for the community to treat their people, so that they can live in dignity.”
The new plan in the fiscal update would see the feds devote $28 million to the projects in 2021-22, $32 million the following year, and $70 million in each of the next two years.
Opposition critics said they will wait to see it take concrete shape before offering praise.
“The promises are great, but we need to see solutions, we need to see actions, we need to see these problems actually solved,” Conservative MP Gary Vidal, his party’s critic for Indigenous Services, said in an interview.
“We’ve seen the announcements, but we haven’t seen the outcomes,” he said.
Miller said the mercury treatment facilities have potential to fill a unique place in the Canadian health-care system.
“I hope it’ll become a state-of-the-art place where we can study the effects of mercury poisoning,” he told a news conference last week.
Fobister said his community of about 1,200 residents continues to struggle with tainted water long after the initial mercury contamination took place.
Grassy Narrows declared a state of emergency over its unsafe drinking water in 2015, after a boil-water advisory had already been in place for nearly two years, as it tried to get more information from the federal government about the safety of its water.
Fobister said a water test showed chemical compounds known trihalomethanes (THMs) that form when the chlorine used to disinfect water reacts with natural organic matter such as vegetation and dead leaves. They also found two other disinfectant byproducts considered possible carcinogens.
The water was deemed fit for human consumption again just this October, which Fobister said came after years of work on water treatment facilities and local pipes. But he said community members are still leery of using tap water, relying instead on shipments of bottled water delivered to the community each week.
Two weeks ago, a test found lead in the tap water at the community’s school, Fobister said.
The government promised to fund the building of a new water treatment plant in the community next to the mercury treatment centre. Fobister said ground testing is already taking place in the area where the two facilities should be built.
He said his community will allow construction workers to enter the community despite the fear of COVID-19. He said he hopes to see both projects begin in the spring.
Miller pegged the timeline to finish the buildings at between 18 and 36 months.
Meanwhile, Fobister said he fears his community will bear the consequences of the mercury contamination until the river is cleaned up, noting such a process could prolong the ordeal for several more generations of Grassy Narrows residents.
“When the fish are healthy, the land is healthy, and maybe, maybe then the youth, 50 years from now, they’ll have good health.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2020.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press