After decades of mercury poisoning complaints, a northern Ontario First Nation is suing the provincial and federal governments, claiming long-standing neglect and prioritization of industrial profits.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice, Grassy Narrows First Nation alleged that both governments failed to address mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River, where the community has long practised its traditional right to fish and gather sustenance under Treaty 3.

“We are doing this for our children, our grandchildren and for the generations of young people being born every day into a community with contaminated rivers and fish,” said Chief Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows at a press conference in front of the courthouse. “It's not fair to them. It's not fair to us. Our economy has been destroyed and our way of life has been disrupted. Living under these circumstances is very difficult.”

A new study commissioned by the First Nation from the University of Western Ontario reveals that ongoing industrial pollution has worsened mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River. It was initially polluted in the 1960s and 70s when a pulp and paper mill dumped nine tonnes of mercury there. Now, the new findings show that wastewater discharge from the Dryden Paper Mill has increased levels of methylmercury, which is more toxic. Grassy Narrows is a community about 150 kilometres from Dryden, Ontario, near the Manitoba border.

Brian Branfireun, who led the research team, emphasized the river system shows no signs of recovery and maintains the highest mercury levels in fish across Ontario.

Approximately 90 per cent of Grassy Narrows' population is believed to exhibit symptoms of mercury poisoning, which leads to such issues as tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction.

Grassy Narrows argues that the government has egregiously violated its obligations by failing to ensure the community could safely practice their right to fish — a cornerstone of their sustenance and Indigenous way of life. According to the First Nation’s release, they are going to court to protect their people and territory from further environmental pollution.

“Time and again, the government has chosen to prioritize corporate profits at our expense. Our mercury nightmare should have ended long ago, but it has been longer and worse because of the government’s failure to live up to its obligations,” said Turtle. “We have had hundreds of meetings, dozens of different studies, negotiated, demonstrated, walked, prayed and done everything in our power to cry out for justice, but we have been met with a hard heart. I hope that with this action and the perseverance of our people we will find justice at long last.”

“Even though the government told us it was safe, our elders have always said that there is something in the water that is hurting us,” said Judy Da Silva, Grassy Narrows grandmother and environmental health coordinator. Photo by Abdul Matin Sarfraz / Canada's National Observer

According to their statement, the First Nation seeks "meaningful remediation," compensation for the extreme harm they have suffered, a halt to the mill’s pollution and an end to industrial threats to their land, water and people. The goal is to restore the health of their people and land, their well-being, and their way of life.

Grassy Narrows First Nation alleged that both governments failed to address mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River, where the community has long practised its traditional right to fish and gather sustenance under Treaty 3.

“Even though the government told us it was safe, our elders have always said that there is something in the water that is hurting us,” said Judy Da Silva, Grassy Narrows grandmother and environmental health coordinator. “It is sad to hear this news of the sulfate making the mercury more toxic. My people knew all along and science has verified it now. Stop poisoning us, let us protect our land and our people, and we will be healthy again.”

“The lawsuit seeks to restore the 'way of life,'” said lawyer Adrienne Telford who, along with Lisa Glowacki, will represent Grassy Narrows in the litigation. “This mill needs to stop polluting, stop poisoning the people downstream, and the rivers need to be cleaned now.”

Telford said the damage to Grassy Narrows people is pervasive. It negatively impacts the environment, their homes, society, culture, way of life and economy. “What we see is premature to put a dollar figure on... From our perspective, the liability is accruing for each day that this mill is allowed to operate by the Crown and allowed to pollute and harm the people downstream."


Grassy Narrows says they are going to court to protect their people and territory from further environmental contamination. Photo by Abdul Matin Sarfraz/ Canada's National Observer

The people of Grassy Narrows have suffered extreme injustice and intense suffering due to a long record of terrible government neglect and mistreatment, Telford added. “This case cries out for justice and this litigation aims to ensure that Ontario and Canada finally uphold their legal and constitutional obligations to Grassy Narrows. The government must be held to account and it must learn the rights and lives of Indigenous people cannot be trampled on.”

Canada's Ministry of Environment says it cannot comment on the legal case as it is before the courts. However, a joint statement sent to Canada’s National Observer by the Minister of Indigenous Services of Canada, and Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change of Canada, said the federal government will continue to work with Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemong Independent Nations to respond to this crisis.

With fewer than 1,000 people, the community continues to face significant health and environmental hardships. Last year, the federal government promised to build a $68.9-million facility for mercury poisoning treatment.

“Everyone deserves to live in a healthy and safe environment, including Indigenous Peoples whose communities are too often located downwind, downstream, and next to polluting industrial facilities,” reads the government statement. “The Government of Canada will fully fund a Mercury care home, and we have now announced $146M for its construction and operation. We are finalizing the last details so that the construction can start shortly.”

The federal government also recognizes that the crisis in Grassy Narrows is interconnected with broader environmental concerns, the statement said. “That's why we're supporting bills like the First Nations Clean Water Act and the Environmental Justice Act so that situations like this do not happen again.”

After the press conference, the Grassy Narrows delegation marched to Queen's Park to deliver their statement of claim to Premier Doug Ford. However, they were denied entry to the building by legislative peace officers. Marit Stiles, Ontario's NDP leader, came and took their statement, promising to deliver it to Ford.

“We’re frustrated and sad it has come to this, but after 54 years of efforts the government has left us with no choice but to sue in order to protect our people and our territory from more harm. We need the government to meaningfully redress the harms we have suffered so that we can finally restore our community’s health and well-being and secure a bright future for our children,” said Chief Turtle.

Canada’s National Observer reached out to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks for comments, but did not receive a reply in time for publication.

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