The province of Ontario has finally committed the funds needed to fulfill its promise to clean up one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history.
A half century, an upstream pulp and paper mill was
allowed to dump tonnes of untreated mercury into the English and Wabigoon river
system in northwest Ontario.
These waters are the lifeblood of the
Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) and neighbouring First Nations.
Community members had worked as guides and as staff in
the many commercial fishing lodges. When the mercury dumping was discovered,
the commercial fishery was closed, cutting the people off from their most
important source of income. Even worse, the contamination of a food source
indispensable to the culture and
subsistence of the community has led to severe, chronic health problems
affecting even children born long after the dumping stopped.
To date, there Thas been no effort to clean up the river
or the former mill site; no comprehensive study of the community’s health
needs; no provision of specialized medical care for the large numbers of people
suffering from mercury poisoning; and no guarantee that their rights and
well-being won’t be further undermined by provincial decisions about logging
and other resource development on their lands.
While the province’s commitment to finally clean up the
river system is a welcome first step, there is much still to be done. And the
long history of government stalling and inaction leaves no room for
ONE OF THE WORST
IN CANADIAN HISTORY
Elevated levels of mercury continue to be found in the rivers and fish. And community members, including youth, continue to suffer from disproportionate rates of serious health problems associated with mercury poisoning. Scientists who have compared the lasting impact of the infamous mercury poisoning incident in Minamata, Japan with the situation at Grassy Narrows, have coined the term "Canadian Minamata disease" to describe the health consequences of chronic exposure to mercury levels government officials still insist are safe.
Logging and blockade
After the closure of the commercial fishery, the province began promoting expansion of large-scale industrial logging in the region. The people of Grassy Narrows consider clear-cut logging to be an unacceptable threat to their remaining ability to live off the land, and a key factor in the persistent contamination of their territory.
In 2002, community members at Grassy Narrows launched a blockade to stop clearcut logging in their traditional territory. The blockade is one of the longest running Indigenous land protests in Canadian history.
In January, 2007, the people of Grassy Narrows called for a moratorium on industrial logging and other resource development in their traditional territory. In the face of a successful community blockade of logging, the province has entered into talks about the long term management of the forest. However, the province has never ruled out renewed logging, with or without the community's consent.
In 2008, the Boise paper company – a major client of AbitibiBowater's Fort Frances mill – announced that it would stop buying pulp from wood logged at Grassy Narrows until the community gave its consent.
Shortly afterward, AbitibiBowater announced that its Fort Frances mill would stop processing wood from Grassy Narrows. The company also said that it wanted to give up the provincial license under which it manages all logging in the Whisky Jack forest.
This brought clear-cut logging to halt at Grassy Narrows. However, without an agreement from the province, the future is uncertain.
Good faith consultation and meaningful accomodation
Canadian law requires a process of good faith consultation and meaningful accommodation of Indigenous concerns whenever government decisions might affect the rights of Indigenous peoples. In some instances, Canadian law, like international human rights standards, requires that no action be taken except with the consent of the affected peoples.
Given the harm that has already been done to the people of Grassy Narrows, the precarious situation in which they now live, Amnesty International has urged the provincial government to apply the highest standard of protection to their rights.
In a September 2007 briefing paper, Amnesty International urged the province of Ontario to respect the moratorium called by the people of Grassy Narrows so that their rights would not be further eroded by continued large-scale resource extraction activities taking place against their wishes.