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Grassy Narrows chief wants Trudeau's commitment to mercury cleanup

The Grassy Narrows community has been dealing with toxic pollution since a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped thousands of kilograms of mercury into the Wabigoon and English river systems in the 1960s.

Chief Simon Fobister at Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario.

Torstar News Service file photo

Chief Simon Fobister at Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario.

TORONTO — The chief of the Grassy Narrows First Nation says he welcomes Ontario's promise to find mercury hot spots that have poisoned the water, but he wants the federal government to commit to cleaning up the contamination.

In an interview Tuesday from Kenora, Ont., Simon Fobister said the provincial government of Premier Kathleen Wynne has committed to a $300,000 study of locating sludge sites, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to make any substantive promises.

"I'm asking the prime minister to commit to clean up the river and I don't know what his response will be to that," Fobister said. "I know Premier Wynne is really noncommittal on a cleanup."

The Grassy Narrows community, near the Manitoba border, has been dealing with toxic pollution since a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped thousands of kilograms of mercury into the Wabigoon and English river systems in the 1960s. Dangerous levels of the toxin continue to exist in sediment and fish, and it appears the metal continues to leach into the river.

What a cleanup might actually cost is unknown but Fobister noted federal and provincial scientists, who proposed dredging the river in the mid-1980s, pegged the price tag then at about $200 million.

Asked about the issue in Fredericton on Tuesday, Trudeau offered a vague response. The federal government, he said, was "working with the province" on the long-standing problem.

"My government is committed to ending boil-water advisories across this country," Trudeau said.

The Prime Minister's Office said in a statement that federal ministers would work closely with the Ontario government and the affected First Nations to come to grips with the problem and to figure out what's needed to deal with it "once and for all."

The statement also said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett would be sitting down at some point with Fobister, Wabaseemoong Chief John Paishk and provincial representatives to talk about next steps.

"We are all aware of the issue, and are doing our part to help remedy it," the PMO said.

The contamination has been "devastating," Fobister said. Apart from direct health impacts, the social and economic consequences have also been profound. The commercial fishery has been banned for more than 30 years and tourism has been badly disrupted. The result, the chief said, has been job and income losses that have forced people onto social assistance and, in some cases, led to suicides.

"I hope that the citizens of Canada and Ontario will support us in making sure that this river is cleaned up," Fobister said.

In a letter to Trudeau this week, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus expressed concern at the prime minister's "lack of engagement" with residents along the Wabigoon and English river systems, saying Trudeau had ignored three letters over the past year from Grassy Narrows.

"Your government's disinterest in this social environmental catastrophe is truly shocking as it has been reported that up to 90 per cent of indigenous people living in the downstream communities have suffered levels of mercury poisoning," Angus wrote.

"It would be impossible to imagine any community in this country where 90 per cent of the population could be poisoned by mercury and not receive a massive national and provincial response."

Angus said Tuesday he was glad to see the Liberal government now appears to be willing to get involved, but said real action is required.

Volunteers from the environmental group Earthroots, which has long advocated for Grassy Narrows, recently found high levels of mercury in soil samples at a site near the Wabigoon River. The site had been identified by a former worker at the Dryden mill who said last year that he had buried more than 50 barrels of mercury and salt in a pit in 1972.

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