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Grassy Narrows chief skeptical as Ontario party leaders pledge mercury clean-up

Last Updated May 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm EDT

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne visits a daycare in Toronto, on Friday May 18, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

GRASSY NARROWS, Ont. – The leaders of all three of Ontario’s major political parties pledged Friday to clean up a mercury-contaminated river that has plagued the Grassy Narrows First Nation for decades, as NDP Leader Andrea Horwath toured the community.

However, the New Democrat leader who flew to the First Nation in northwestern Ontario failed to win a full-throated endorsement from the community’s recently elected chief, Rudy Turtle.

“As leadership, we’re definitely concerned about who gets in (to office),” Turtle said. “Definitely, we’re hoping that either the Liberals or NDP — one of them — gets in.”

Residents of the 800-strong reserve in an otherwise idyllic part of the province have suffered from mercury poisoning since a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the toxic heavy metal into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s. A report authored by five experts and released last year suggested mercury could still be leaking into the river system.

The governing Liberals under Premier Kathleen Wynne committed $85 million last year to remediate the river, but Horwath criticized her election rival’s inaction on the situation.

Wynne has “nothing else to say after 15 years in government herself,” Horwath said as she toured Grassy Narrows on Friday. “We will not sit by and let another generation go by and have this community continue to be in a situation where they don’t have clean drinking water, where the mercury poisoning that their community members are dealing with is not being addressed.”

Horwath pledged as part of her election platform to ensure the money promised by the Liberals actually flows. She also promised to build a treatment centre on the reserve, which now has only a nursing station, for those suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning, and to ensure those suffering from poisoning are adequately compensated.

Despite some cleanup efforts, mercury concentrations in the area haven’t decreased in 30 years. Dangerous levels are still present in sediment and fish, causing ongoing health and economic impacts in Grassy Narrows and the Wabaseemoong First Nation. Turtle said it appears things were finally moving.

“It’s coming. It’s slow, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Turtle said. “Definitely, it’s been a struggle. Some of the victims are at the elderly stage and they’d like to see something happen before they leave this world.”

Wynne, speaking in Toronto, said preliminary work on the cleanup was already starting but she gave no timeline for when local residents can expect their drinking water to be safe.

“They are putting in place the conditions, the infrastructure to deal with the cleanup,” Wynne said. “Whatever leakage that is still happening has to be stopped and then whatever mercury is in the system has to be cleaned up. So that work is underway now and it will take as long as it takes.”

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford said in a statement that a Tory government would make it a priority to “work as quickly as we can to clean up the contamination.”

Turtle, however, made it clear Ford’s commitment would win him few friends among Indigenous people. He cited the Ipperwash incident, in which provincial police killed an unarmed Aboriginal protester in 1995 under then Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris.

“I’m not really too fond of the PC government,” Turtle said. “That’s something that most of our people are very leery of. I haven’t heard if their way of handling native issues would be any different from those previous people.”

Grassy Narrows has also been under a boil water advisory for more than eight years because of an inadequate treatment plant that would cost $15 million to upgrade, Turtle said. So far, however, the water remains undrinkable.

“We’re hoping that we will be one of the next ones that are funded and (we) get this place upgraded,” the chief said.

Sol Mamakwa, the NDP candidate in the new Kiiwetinoong riding, of which Grassy Narrows is part, greeted Horwath as she arrived in the drizzle at Kenora airport ahead of her tour of the reserve.

Horwath took pains to say it was time residents got justice.

“I had a sense from the community that they believe things are just taking too long, and they’ve been taking too long for decades now,” Horwath said. “Governments have been avoiding their responsibility in terms of the cleanup, they’ve been avoiding their responsibilities in terms of making things better. They shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”