Grassy Narrows First Nation files lawsuit against Ontario, federal governments over mercury contamination

June 11, 2024
Barbara Steinhoff

By Sarah Law - CBC News - June 4, 2024

A First Nation in northwestern Ontario that has faced decades of mercury poisoning is suing the provincial and federal governments, arguing they've failed to protect its treaty rights.

Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek First Nation — known as Grassy Narrows — filed the lawsuit in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice on Tuesday morning.

It argues the governments have violated their duties under Treaty 3 by failing to protect against or remedy the effects of mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River system.

The allegations in this lawsuit haven't been tested in court.

Contamination of the river system dates back to the 1960s and '70s when Dryden's paper mill in northwestern Ontario dumped an estimated nine tonnes of mercury into the water.

Generations of people have consumed fish from the river. According to a previously reported study by medical specialists, about 90 per cent of the community of roughly 1,000 people experience symptoms of mercury poisoning. They include Chief Rudy Turtle.

"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," Turtle said in a news release on Tuesday.

For years, environmental advocates have called for the river to be cleaned up and the mill to be shut down.

In late May, a new study from Western University in London, Ont., revived these demands with a report suggesting mercury contamination in the river system has been made worse by ongoing industrial pollution.

"Dryden Fibre Canada took over operations for the mill last August. We operate in compliance with extensive environmental regulatory requirements," said Dianne Loewen, a spokesperson for Dryden Fibre Canada, in an email to CBC News late Tuesday afternoon. "Regarding this morning's announcement by Grassy Narrows — we have not yet seen the filing and will not be commenting."

"The government has egregiously violated its obligations to Grassy Narrows by failing to ensure that Grassy Narrows people could safely practise their right to fish — a cornerstone of Grassy Narrows' sustenance and Indigenous way of life," says a statement from the First Nation that was also issued Tuesday.

"This case will be a test of Ontario's and Canada's commitment to truth, reconciliation and justice following one of Canada's worst environmental and human rights catastrophes."

During a news conference in Toronto on Tuesday morning, Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa said the lack of government action is perpetuating the effects of colonialism on Grassy Narrows people.

"When we talk about environmental genocide, this is what it looks like," Mamakwa said.

Judy Da Silva is a Grassy Narrows grandmother and the community's environmental health co-ordinator. She says she also experiences symptoms of mercury poisoning, which include loss of co-ordination, trouble swallowing, and a loss of sensation in her hands and feet.

"Our people were proud fishermen and land users and hunters, and then this poison came and took all that away," Da Silva said in an interview with CBC News.

She thinks back to summer 2000, when the Walkerton water crisis made national headlines after seven people died and about 2,300 others became ill from Canada's worst E. coli contamination.

"They got compensated so quickly and then Grassy's been going through this for decades, and still there's no resolution," she said. "I think it's environmental racism."

In 2017, the federal government committed to building a Mercury Care Home in Grassy Narrows. The same year, the Ontario government committed $85 million to fund mercury cleanup and remediation efforts in the English-Wabigoon River system.

About seven years later, the river remains toxic. Construction on the Mercury Care Home is expected to start this summer and take two to three years to complete.

In Ottawa on Tuesday, Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu told reporters she understands the frustration that has led Grassy Narrows to go through the courts.

"I'm sure they're seeing it as a part of a broader effort to ensure that this kind of environmental racism doesn't continue," Hajdu said.

Ottawa has now committed $146 million for the construction and operation of the Mercury Care Home, she said. While the protection of water falls under provincial jurisdiction, Hajdu did point to Bill C-61, an act respecting water, source water, drinking water, wastewater and related infrastructure on First Nation lands, as a key way of preventing future harm.

CBC News reached out to the Ontario government for comment on the lawsuit and received an emailed response from Keesha Seaton, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General, late Tuesday afternoon.

"As this matter is subject to litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment," Seaton said.

A spokesperson for the federal Office of the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change also provided CBC News with an emailed statement on behalf of Hajdu and Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault.

"We cannot comment on the legal case as it is before the courts. It is extremely important to the government of Canada to do its part in responding to this crisis, and we will be there to work with Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemong Independent Nations every step of the way," wrote spokesperson Kaitlin Power.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also reacted to the Grassy Narrows lawsuit while addressing reporters on Parliament Hill.

"It's an ongoing example of Indigenous communities receiving second-class treatment," Singh said of the persisting mercury poisoning.

"This is Canada's fault and Canada must step up."

Grassy Narrows, about 150 kilometres from Dryden near the Ontario-Manitoba border, is being represented by both Toronto-based firm Cavalluzzo LLP and Ratcliff LLP out of Vancouver.

At this point, there is no set dollar amount for how much compensation the First Nation is seeking. However, the types of remedies relate to restoring the environment, "upon which their health, and their livelihoods and their treaty rights depend," Adrienne Telford, co-lead legal counsel with Cavalluzzo LLP, said in an interview with CBC News.

"Grassy Narrows is a community in crisis," Telford said. "They require significant financial, and socioeconomic and health supports to allow community members to restore their health, and their well-being and their way of life."

"If this was Ontario cottage country, the river would have been cleaned up decades ago, the pollution would have stopped and the harms properly compensated."

When pressed by Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa during Monday's question period in the Ontario Legislature, the minister of the environment, conservation and parks, Andrea Khanjin, said the government is committed to remediating the mercury contamination.

Technical experts with the ministry have met with First Nations leaders and those who led the Western University study — though additional work is needed before the researchers' report is finalized, Khanjin said.

Sandy Shaw, MPP for Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas and NDP environment, conservation and parks critic, called that answer "disappointing."

"This is a human and ecological disaster and it has been going on for generations. For heaven's sake, Speaker, the time for studies has well passed," Shaw said.

Khanjin responding by pointing to the work being done with Ontario's English and Wabigoon Rivers Remediation Panel.

"We're taking the politics out of this and referring to the science because this government remains committed to correcting this historic wrong."

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