The discovery that pollution from a paper mill is contributing to the long-standing mercury poisoning afflicting Grassy Narrows First Nation is another example of widespread environmental racism, say federal MPs.

The mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows dates back to the 1960s and '70s, when Dryden Chemical dumped roughly 10 metric tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system. The pollution has caused serious health problems for the vast majority of members of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations, including neurological issues, birth defects and more.

“The reality is Indigenous communities, racialized communities have to continue to suffer when corporations pollute,” Edmonton-Griesbach NDP MP Blake Desjarlais said, pointing to the Grassy Narrow’s case and Danielle Smith’s government’s RStar program that “uses tax dollars” to remediate industry’s abandoned wells.

And this is not the first recent, high-profile example of environmental pollution driven by corporate interest that has impacted Indigenous communities.

Last year, it came to light that local Indigenous communities including the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation were not properly notified of seepage from tailings ponds until a large spill, nine months later, brought the issue into the spotlight.

Imperial Oil and the Alberta Energy Regulator say there were no impacts to the water supply or environment, but this did not assuage the fear and anxiety felt by ACFN and Mikisew Cree First Nation members, many of whom rely on fish, game and gathering out on the land. Communities have long been calling on the federal government to conduct health studies on the cumulative impacts of the oilsands development, pointing to cases of a rare bile duct cancer.

Then, in late April, Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia Ont. — also known as Chemical Valley due to the more than 60 petrochemical plants in the region — measured benzene levels 424 times higher than acceptable levels. Benzene is highly toxic and a known carcinogen, used in chemical manufacturing to produce certain types of plastics. The chemical is known to cause cancers and increase rates of respiratory illness. Aamjiwnaang First Nation said elevated benzene levels in the air from the Ineos Styrolution facility caused several community members to fall ill.

In response, on May 17, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault issued a 14-day emergency interim order to the petrochemical industry in Sarnia, ordering companies to implement abatement measures to contain pollution, including fully closed vents and vapour control on storage tanks that contain high concentrations of the chemical.

News of the Grassy Narrows mercury poisoning made a stir in Question Period on May 23, when NDP MP Charlie Angus called it “an unprecedented corporate crime.”

@DesjarlaisBlake says if the chemicals had been dumped in the St. Lawrence and affected Montreal, the problem would have been solved far faster than it has been for Grassy Narrows First Nation. #canpoli

“We now learn that the Dryden Fibre Canada mill has been dumping sulfates into the Wabigoon River, which has been driving the mercury crisis for a new generation,” said Angus. He asked the federal government what it will do to hold the company accountable and clean up the contamination.

Liberal MP Jenica Atwin pointed to an Indigenous Services Canada project that received $57.5 million in Budget 2024 to construct a care home to offer specialized care and assisted living to people with methylmercury poisoning.

“We can't just slap a hospital or a special medicalized program that's going to help mercury victims, it should have never happened to begin with,” Desjarlais said.

“Imagine if this happened in Montreal, imagine if we dumped all of the metallurgic chemicals into the St. Lawrence, how fast, how quickly this problem will be resolved,” he added.

In recent years, sulfur and organic compound discharge from the Dryden Fibre Canada mill has created a dangerous chemical reaction in the Wabigoon River resulting in high levels of methylmercury, researchers from Western University said Thursday.

The levels of methylmercury — the most toxic form of mercury — in the river's fish may be twice as high as they would be without the mill discharge, the researchers said.

“We have individuals who are eating the fish that is now highly contaminated with an even worse substance than they would have ever imagined,” Desjarlais said. “These things were preventable.”

Desjarlais said there are two root causes for these repeated instances of environmental racism, the first being the current neoliberal economic system, which favours free markets and deregulation.

“Neoliberalism has given corporations unfettered power to act as an individual, for the better pursuit of their own interests at the cost of other people,” he said.

This should be countered by giving those same individual rights of corporations to water, air and the land, Desjarlais said. “The things we rely on most for our longevity as a species should be protected,” he said.

He also advocates giving greater power to Indigenous jurisdictions, referring to the fact that Indigenous lands make up 20 per cent of the world, but contain 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May also called out Alberta’s tailings pond debacle as another example of environmental racism in action.

“It's been proven now for more than a decade that the toxic chemicals from the tailings ponds are reaching the Athabasca River, which is a violation of the federal Fisheries Act, yet no charges are laid,” said May in a phone interview with Canada’s National Observer.

May has a private members bill that seeks to address environmental racism. Bill C-226 is one Senate vote away from becoming law. May said it’s unclear when the vote will be held, but the bill is expected to pass. Once passed, the bill will require the federal government to examine the links between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk as well as compel the environment and climate change minister to develop a national strategy to address the harms caused by environmental racism.

May hopes the passage of C-226 will “result in a meaningful change” to get us beyond just talking about the pattern of environmental pollution and racism, by identifying the responsibility of governments to protect marginalized, racialized and Indigenous communities. She looks to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice program — created in 1994 – as inspiration for what Canada should do.

with files from Paola Loriggio, the Canadian Press

Matteo Cimellaro & Natasha Bulowski / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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In 2017, the Wynne government in Ontario set aside $85 million for remediation of the mercury pollution in the English-Wabigoon River system. An advisory panel is required to report each year on the activities. To my knowledge, none of the results of the technical studies, fieldwork and analyses have been released to the public, and no remediation at all has taken place. The latest report is to March 31, 2022. Nearly $27 million had been spent by that date. The Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks sent me an email in March 2019 which reads in part:

"As you know, mercury contamination has had a profound impact on the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations and must be properly addressed. Other local First Nations have also expressed interest in the remediation of the rivers. An assessment of the Dryden industrial site is underway to determine if the site is an ongoing source of mercury to the river. If the industrial site is an ongoing source of mercury, we will ensure that appropriate measures are taken to prevent mercury from entering the river. The industrial site assessment is being completed through a transparent process that includes the involvement of First Nations. We are also continuing to work with First Nations to identify mercury contaminated sites in the English and Wabigoon Rivers and develop and implement an action plan to appropriately remediate these sites."

It is now 2024, and to my knowledge none of the results of the work, which the panel report calls "pre-remediation" and "capacity building", has been published. I don't know if the latest study by biologists at the University of Western Ontario was funded by the some of the $85 million that was set aside, but if it was, I think that would be their first published report.

I can recall this has been a problem for 40 plus years and a former employee finally indicated roughly where the waste from the closed mill was. That the company still dumps compounds making the problem worse, shows just how irresponsible federal and Provincial governments are