Current Problems

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

‘We have been met with a hard heart’: Frustrated at lack of progress, Grassy Narrows sues governments for failing to clean up mercury pollution

June 4, 2024

The lawsuit accuses Canada and Ontario of violating their treaty obligations by failing to ensure the community could safely fish.

Grassy Narrows.JPG
Grassy Narrows First Nations has been plagued by mercury pollution after a pulp and paper company dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River, contaminating the fish that are a staple to their community. Randy Risling Toronto Star

By Morgan Sevareid-BocknekInvestigative Reporter

CBC News: Grassy Narrows First Nation is suing the federal and provincial governments, alleging Canadian and Ontarian officials have consistently put the profits of industry ahead of an Indigenous community poisoned by dumped mercury waste.

The lawsuit accuses the governments of allowing the Wabigoon River to be polluted, then neglecting to remediate it, while simultaneously authorizing industrial production and prospecting. In doing so, Canada and Ontario violated their treaty obligations by failing to ensure the Indigenous community could safely practice its right to fish, the lawsuit alleges.

“Time and again the government has chosen to prioritize corporate profits at our expense. 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,” said Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle.

Despite officials’ repeated promises to clean up the mercury-polluted river, the neurotoxin remains in the food chain. Recent research suggests levels are worse than previously believed.

The river was first polluted in the 1960s, when the paper mill upstream from the First Nation dumped mercury into the river. In 2017, Ontario — faced with evidence that mercury remained in soil, fish and river sediment — promised to address the “gross neglect.” Though officials committed $85 million to the effort, the project is still in the research phase. Frustrated at what they say is the lack of progress and compensation for ongoing harm, Grassy Narrows leaders say they have been left with no choice but to sue.

“We have had hundreds of meetings, dozens of different studies, negotiated, demonstrated, walked, prayed, and done everything in our power to cry out for justice, but we have been met with a hard heart. I pray that with this action and the perseverance of our people we will find justice at long last,” Turtle said.

The lawsuit has not yet been filed but was released by Grassy Narrows today, and the Star will update this story as it gets responses from officials.

Dryden mill’s emissions worsening mercury problem: study

Grassy Narrows wants Canada and Ontario to admit to infringing on its rights, prohibit further industrial activities that could adversely affect the First Nation and deliver on promises to remediate the river system.

A dollar amount quantifying damages will be assigned at a later stage of litigation, said lawyer Adrienne Telford of Cavalluzzo LLP, who represents Grassy Narrows in the litigation, along with Lisa Glowacki of Ratcliff LLP.

“Each day the government allows the mill to pollute and cause harm downstream, more liability accrues,” she said in a message to the Star.

The suit comes on the heels of a scientific report commissioned by the First Nation and funded in part by Ontario that revealed current sulphate emissions from the Dryden pulp and paper mill are at least doubling the methylmercury levels in the Wabigoon River.

The findings help explain why mercury contamination levels remain higher than scientists have thought they should be after the old Dryden mill, operated then by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon-English River system between 1962 and 1970. The dumping took place upstream from Grassy Narrows and nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations.

Mercury-contaminated soil found in 2017

Though scientists have long suspected that old mercury still contaminates the land on or near the mill property — a 2017 Star investigation found mercury-contaminated soil in the ground behind the mill — the new study focused on sulphate’s impact on mercury already in the river system.

Grassy Narrows has approximately 1,700 members, of which approximately 1,000 live on the river, about 90 kilometres northeast of Kenora, Ont.

A spokesperson from the provincial Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks said in a statement last month that the Ontario government is reviewing the study’s findings.

Grassy Narrows “should not have to be dealing with contaminated water in the first place,” a spokesperson from Environment and Climate Change Canada said last month in response to the study’s findings. The spokesperson also noted the government’s work to introduce Bill C-61, First Nations Clean Drinking Water Act, aimed at preventing future water contamination and ensuring First Nations have “more tools necessary to protect source water and maintain drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in a self-determined way.”

“The people of Grassy Narrows have suffered extreme injustice, and intense suffering due to a terrible and long record of government neglect and mistreatment,” said Telford.

“This case cries out for justice and this litigation aims to ensure that Ontario and Canada finally uphold their legal and constitutional obligations to Grassy Narrows. The government must be held to account and it must learn the rights and lives of Indigenous people cannot be trampled on.”

Morgan Sevareid-Bocknek is Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @mobocks.

Related Stories

Ontario knew about Grassy Narrows mercury site for decades, but kept it secret

Who are the Grassy Narrows 143? Health Canada won’t say

This First Nation’s youth attempt suicide at alarming rates. A new study suggests it’s linked to residents’ exposure to dumped mercury