From bad to worse: latest revelations underline Ontario’s shocking indifference to the health of people of Grassy Narrows

By Craig Benjamin

It’s information that the Ontario government could – and should – have brought to light, but failed to do so.

Last year, the provincial government stated that it had not been able to find any evidence to support claims by a former millworker that barrels of mercury had been buried at a site upstream from the Grassy Narrows First Nation and might now be leaching into their water system.

Last week, however, the Toronto Star reported that members of the environmental NGO Earthroots had conducted their own soil tests at a location identified by the mill worker and found mercury levels as much as 80 times higher than normal. The findings were replicated by tests done by the Toronto Star. Scientists who reviewed the finding said there was little doubt that this was industrial mercury.

The story is particularly concerning because it is the latest revelation of Ontario’s persistent and shocking disregard for the basic safety and well-being of the people of Grassy Narrows.

In the 1960s, the province allowed massive mercury dumping into the river system that is the lifeblood of the Grassy Narrows First Nation. Independent studies have consistently pointed to mercury poisoning as the source of a profound health crisis in the community. 

When pressed, provincial politicians have expressed concern for Grassy Narrows. But the lack of meaningful action paints a different picture of the province’s real attitude toward Grassy Narrows.

  • Despite its responsibility for allowing the contamination of the river system, Ontario has failed to systematically track community health concerns or provide dedicated medical care for mercury poisoning,
  • Ontario has continued to question the feasibility of cleaning up the contaminated river system, despite scientific studies showing that there are safe ways to reduce the contamination – including a joint federal-provincial study completed three decades ago.
  • Now, it appears that the province made insufficient efforts to investigate reports of a possible additional source of mercury contamination, despite the fact that the latest provincially funded study warned last year that continued high levels of mercury in the river system likely points to an additional source of contamination.

Earthroots and the Toronto Star should be commended for helping unearth this latest information about threats to the health of the people of Grassy Narrows. But the province should have done more to investigate the allegations of dumping, just has it should have been doing more all along to address the impacts of previous contamination.

The lives of the people of Grassy Narrows matter. And it matters to all of us that they are treated fairly and justly.

Craig Benjamin is the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples Campaigner at Amnesty International Canada. Follow him on Twitter @Craig_Benjamin