ONE can hardly blame Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Randy Turtle for refusing to sign an agreement with Ottawa to pursue “a path forward” to deal with the “long-term health needs of the community . . .” After all, it’s been 50 years since the Dryden paper mill operator dumped thousands of kilograms of mercury-contaminated effluent into the English-Wabigoon rivers system, poisoning fish to this day and many residents of two Indigenous communities who eat them.

When visiting Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan refused to lock $88 million into a band-proposed trust fund this week, Turtle wondered when and if the money might come.

Neither, perhaps, can one blame O’Regan for hesitating to commit that amount on the spot. Ottawa had already paid into a $17-million settlement fund for Grassy Narrows and nearby Wabaseemoong First Nation, formerly known as Whitedog, “for the settlement of all claims and causes of action, past, present and future, arising out of the discharge by Reed Inc., and its predecessors” of mercury.

Ontario contributed just over $2 million. The federal government paid $2.75 million. Great Lakes Forest Products Ltd., which bought Dryden Chemicals Ltd. in 1979, contributed $6 million while the original mill owner, Reed Inc., paid $5.75 million. The deal included creation of a disability fund to distribute money to band members suffering from mercury poisoning. If the fund ever fell below $100,000, Ontario would top it up.

Grassy Narrows, with an on-reserve population 973, received almost $9 million. The Islington band at Whitedog (population 827) received $8 million. Grassy Narrows placed its money in one band corporation for economic development and another for social development. Whitedog residents set up a trust fund with annual interest to be used for social and economic projects. A resort on Ball Lake was acquired in a deal that would eventually sour relations with government.

Leaders of Grassy Narrows said that despite the 1985 settlement, the Ontario government still had not fully compensated the people for their losses. Negotiations dragged on.

Then it was discovered that even after all this time, mercury continues to pollute the rivers. A recent investigation revealed the presence of effluent-filled drums buried in the vicinity of the mill. This led the former Ontario Liberal government to commit $85 million in trust to clean up and remediate the waters. It is that level of permanency that Chief Turtle wanted from O’Regan this week.

O’Regan is bound by a promise made by his predecessor, Jane Philpott, to build a mercury disease treatment centre. Turtle was expecting to hear from the minister Friday.

Ontario, meanwhile, is moving ahead with its fund. A remediation panel with representatives from Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemoong and the province has met twice and scientific work is under way to assess the mill site, the level of continuing contamination and what will be done to reduce or end it.

The province announced last summer those on disability will have their first cost-of-living raise from the disability fund since the 1980s. Monthly payments were doubled to between $500 and $1,700 for those who qualify.

It is estimated that up to 90 per cent of Grassy Narrows residents suffer from some level of mercury poisoning. And yet many continue to eat pickerel from the river. The reason is a historical reliance on the fish and mixed messages from government.

When mercury contamination was confirmed half a century ago the people of Grassy and Whitedog were ordered to cease commercial fishing, their main source of income, and stop eating fish themselves, their main source of food. Guiding sports anglers had been another way for some residents to earn an income.

For a time, Ontario provided clean fish and freezers in which to store them but that program was ended, perhaps because there were assurances that things were getting better. They weren’t.

As outlined by TVOntario regional reporter Jon Thompson in December, Health Canada testing prompted then Ontario energy and natural-resource management minister George Kerr to pronounce in 1970 that it would take just another 12 weeks for mercury levels in local fish to decline. Other scientific reports estimated that recovery would take decades.

“As late as 1997, visiting Health Canada officials told Grassy Narrows residents that hair-sample studies the agency had conducted showed that the mercury had cleared from the river system,” Thompson wrote. “Commercial fishing, however, was still prohibited. Successive Grassy Narrows chiefs argued that this constituted a double standard: If it wasn’t safe to sell the fish, then how could it be safe to eat them?”

Were mercury levels declining until seeping material from the buried drums began to reach the river sometime in the past decade? The provincial studies now under way should confirm the state of the water such that proper methods to remove the pollution and clean up the river once and for all can be undertaken.

That it has taken 50 years despite the glaring evidence of withering mercury poisoning to deal with this problem is a national shame. But what became of the $17 million paid to the two band councils? And will another $172 million in government money actually, finally, fix this thing?

And what of Ball Lake Lodge, acquired by the bands as part of their compensation? Former Grassy Narrows chief Simon Fobister recalled in 2010 an agreement that Ontario would assist in rebuilding the lodge after it sat idle for almost 10 years. He said the province never did live up to that promise, instead building a bridge and fixing the road to the lodge.

Back roads, though, were in rough shape and when the band tried to repair them, natural resources officers tried to force them to stop. MNR had worked on the roads earlier, to provide access to forest companies whose cutting led Grassy Narrows clan mothers to set up a blockade in 2002 that continues.

The dispute over the future of the surrounding forest is ongoing, one aspect of which is a band claim that clear-cut logging increases the mercury load in any adjacent lakes and rivers.

Once again Grassy Narrows finds itself pitted against the forest industry and pollution while governments spend millions in hopes of making things right.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.

(Originally published June 1, 2019)

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