The Ontario government says it's committed to clean and safe drinking water for Northern Ontario First Nations, but that the federal government should “step up to ensure this.”
When the mercury contaminated land and water along the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations was raised in Question Period on Wednesday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford did not provide new details on cleanup efforts. Instead he suggested the solution lies, in part, with the government's federal counterparts.
"When a promise is made to a First Nations people, the first peoples of this land, it has to be kept," MPP of Kiiwetinoong Sol Mamakwa said at Queen's Park.
“We'll also be working and challenging our federal government partners to make sure that those two communities have safe drinking water,” said Rickford.
Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong, asked the minister if he had contacted the First Nations councils, when cleanup could be expected, or if the government would commit to a treatment facility as the NDP had. Rickford did not answer.
Instead, he restated the party’s campaign platform of a broad commitment to water safety.
“Every Ontario resident deserves to have access to safe clean drinking water,” Rickford said. “We will work closely with those Indigenous communities – Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong – two communities I'm intimately familiar with, and the opportunity to correct that wrong, Mr. Speaker.”
Chief Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows told National Observer he hasn't heard anything from the new government since it took office in June, nor did the Progressive Conservatives make contact beforehand.
“He's never worked directly with us,” said Turtle of Rickford. “I'm sure he's familiar with the file because he's from Kenora, but he's never directly worked with us.”
Turtle says that he has met the minister casually, during chance encounters in Kenora, but never to address water remediation nor in any official capacity.
The provincial government has, over the decades and throughout successive administrations, dragged its feet on remediation efforts until putting in place an $85 million trust last year to clean up the toxins dumped by a Dryden paper mill in the 1960s.
A 2016 study showed that more than 90 per cent of community members had symptoms of mercury poisoning, in an area that once thrived off a robust hunting economy and commercial fishery.
“Moving forward, Mr. Speaker, I can assure this member, I have met with senior officials in my department, we’ve discussed the opportunity here to correct and fix that problem," Rickford said. "We're committed to it for the benefit not only of those communities but the people in our vast and beautiful region of Kenora—Rainy River.”
‘We’re talking about a buck a beer?’
The official opposition says that the mercury cleanup should not be punted to the feds, but members said they aren't particularly surprised the new government is taking that tack.
When they talk about the federal responsibilities for health issues related to First Nations, says Mamakwa, that’s code for “we will do nothing.”
“When I'm down here and I hear communities paying $20 for a bag of (milk) and we're talking about a buck a beer?” Mamakwa said to National Observer. “The PC government says they’re a government of the people but it’s only a government for some people.”
The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs did not provide further comment. Instead, a National Observer request for more information was forwarded to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, which said that it’s "working with Indigenous communities to identify mercury contaminated sites in the English and Wabigoon Rivers and develop and implement a plan to remediate these sites.
"An assessment of the Dryden mill site is underway to determine if the site is an ongoing source of mercury to the river,” wrote an environment ministry spokesperson in an emailed statement, adding Indigenous communities are involved in the assessment working group and senior government officials are in regular contact about remediation efforts.
"If results of the assessment show that mercury is being discharged from the site to the Wabigoon River, the ministry will ensure that action is taken to appropriately address mercury discharges from the site."
Rickford did not respond to Mamakwa’s questions with any specifics on contact with the communities or health concerns, but he did speak of increasing access to resource industries.
“We're also committed to ensuring that those two communities have the same kind of economic opportunities moving forward as other communities. There’s mining exploration activities immediately in the region, Mr. Speaker, and we want those communities to have increased prosperity, to have access to jobs, Mr. Speaker, to have access to the kinds of things that many other Ontarians have come to expect,” said Rickford, who is also the minister of energy, Northern development and mines.
Before the election, the Progressive Conservatives espoused a general commitment to clean water, but did not provide any specifics when asked on the campaign trail.
Gilles Bisson – MPP for Timmins and NDP House Leader – agrees that the provincial government needs to fulfill its role in remediation, but concedes their options with the Progressive Conservatives in the majority are limited.
“We will do everything in our power in order to try to make sure the province comes good on making sure we clean up that disaster,” Bisson told National Observer. “Those facilities were permitted under the province that did the polluting, right? So we have a responsibility. It was our permits that allowed that to happen some years ago.”
Chief Turtle says he hopes the commitment, if vague, will be fulfilled.
“Sounds good, but I guess actions will speak for themselves down the road. It’s easy to say that in legislature but like I said we haven’t sat down with him, he hasn’t talked to me personally, so it's a bit misleading there.”