OTTAWA — The ongoing mercury poisoning on the Grassy Narrows First Nation is "very much" an Ontario issue, Justin Trudeau says — a point of contention for indigenous leaders who want action on the prime minister's personal promise to address the problem "once and for all.”
Trudeau's remarks come after a new report — commissioned by Grassy Narrows First Nation and funded by Ontario — found there is ongoing mercury contamination in the area from a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., that was decommissioned decades ago.
"The Grassy Narrows issue is very much a provincial issue," he told a news conference Wednesday in Calgary.
"But the federal government, under my leadership, is certainly very engaged with the province to ensure we are moving forward in the right direction.”
The northwestern Ontario community, located near the Manitoba border, has struggled to deal with poisoning since the mill dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the Wabigoon and English River systems in the 1960s.
Contamination remains a serious concern for the community, Health Minister Jane Philpott said earlier Wednesday in Ottawa — but she also made it clear the federal government sees the problem as primarily an Ontario one.
"There are serious challenges and that's why it has to be a matter that is addressed with the utmost seriousness," she said. "The province has the lead on this and we, in the federal government, will continue to support them.”
For its part, Health Canada says it has funded community research on mercury since 2000, adding this includes support for testing fish and other wildlife. In a statement late Wednesday, it also said it has paid for a community health assessment with Ontario since 2014.
Ottawa must firmly commit to help clean up the toxic material, said Chief Simon Fobister, who met Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on Monday. He said he hasn't heard an official response to this request, adding his people are still suffering.
"Minister Bennett was really mum on that," Fobister said. "We are asking what their role is now.”
In a statement, Bennett's office said it is providing access to expertise and information from other departments to help the reserve deal with the contamination, noting it is also working on renewing the Mercury Disability Board — a panel designed to implement settlement terms.
Canada's monitoring of risks to Grassy Narrows has been a terrible failure for decades, said David Sone, an environmental justice advocate with the group Earthroots.
"No one has bothered to do this simple test which now reveals that decades of avoidable mercury pollution has likely been leaking into the river," Sone said.
"If the monitoring had been adequate, we could have gotten to the bottom of this problem decades ago, stopped ongoing leaks, and there would be children in Grassy Narrows today living free from the burden of mercury poisoning.”
No mercury was detected in the drinking water in Grassy Narrows during monitoring, Health Canada said.
Three generations are suffering from impacts of mercury poisoning in the community, Sone said, noting they include aging elders and youth.
"It appears that mercury has been leaking into their river from the old mill site while generations of people are made sick," he said.
"Top international experts in mercury and human health say that there is no doubt that people in Grassy Narrows have been impacted by mercury.”
Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, a leadership candidate for the federal New Democrats, said Trudeau explicitly said both governments would address the tragedy.
"What is the value of the prime minister's word if he's not going to live up to a community that has been so brutally poisoned?" he said. "Now they are walking away.”
Angus said he wrote to Trudeau earlier this year to ask for a federal commitment in no uncertain terms.
"We are going to need to see firm commitments to clean up this community because people are still being poisoned and people are still dying and it absolutely unacceptable.”
—with files from Paola Loriggio
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press