Photo: Sign contaminants in Wabigoon River System
The Toronto Star had recently reported this week that the provincial government had received a report back in 2016 stating that in 1990, the environment ministry at the time was aware of mercury contaminants in a mill by Grassy Narrows (Bruser, 2017). However, what is even more shocking is that this news was a surprise to the Ontario Premier, Kathleen Wynne, who said she had never heard of any such report. This was confirmed by the Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister, David Zimmer, when he stated this week that the report was received in September of 2016, however was never sent to the premier (CBC News, 2017).
Grassy Narrows was a community which has been suffering from mercury poisoning since the early 1970s when it was first revealed that the communities’ fish supply had extremely dangerous levels of mercury (Free Grassy Narrows, 2016). This was due to the dumping of contaminants from a nearby paper mill owned by Reed Paper which resulted in devastating effects in the community from employment rates dropping from 90% to 10%, as well as lifetime mental issues and increases in criminal activity (Free Grassy Narrows, 2016). A larger tragedy was that years later, government officials continued to reiterate that mercury was located in the river and that the river would “clean itself naturally” (Bruser, 2017). However, based on these new reports, this was not true.
“We are not sure exactly how that information hadn’t made it to my desk, but we’re asking that question”, Wynne stated last week (Bruser, 2017). When Zimmer was asked, he stated that the environment ministry was not able to, at the time, publically release the information pertaining to the report due to the fact that it was, “derived from a third-party report that is owned by Domtar and was prepared by their consultant” (Bruser, 2017) Moreover, the environment minister during the period where the report was sent to the government, Glen Murray, told the Star that he had no recollection of being told by his staff about the information in the report (CBC News, 2017).
Photo: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne
Personally, I am reluctant to believe that the Premier of Ontario can be completely unaware about a report pertaining to a significant health issue that had occurred in the province, especially since just weeks ago, Wynne had publically stated her commitment to the rehabilitation of Grassy Narrows. Nevertheless, whether she was aware or not, top advisors and officials must have been aware of this report and decided to turn a blind eye to the issue. Ignorance is not a good enough answer as to why Wynne was not aware of this report and it is extremely irresponsible on the part of the provincial government that this report was not publically addressed as soon as it was handed in, back in 2016.
I think it was put perfectly when the environmental coordinator of Grassy Narrows stated, “I think this latest report points to the need for additional activity apart from what we’re doing in terms of cleaning up the river, but there needs to be the federal government, the First Nation, the provincial government and Health Canada sitting at the table to determine what the next steps should be” (Bruser, 2017). This report reveals just another instance of the provincial government not putting enough effort when it comes to their commitments on indigenous issues.