For over three years, the Ford government has neglected to begin implementing the mercury removal plan at Grassy Narrows, writes Darshan Maharaja. It is abetted in this neglect by the opposition parties, which have not held the government accountable.

By Darshan Maharaja, October 28, 2021

The tragedy of Grassy Narrows is perhaps known to most Canadians, and certainly to most Ontarians. Back in the 1960s, the paper mill located upstream from Grassy Narrows released over 9000 kilos of mercury in the English and Wabigoon rivers. Ever since, residents of the First Nations communities located in the area have been suffering from severe health impacts as a result. The mercury makes its way from the water and via the fish into peoples’ bodies, causing a whole range of debilitating medical conditions.

In 2017, or some 45 years after the mercury poisoning became known, the provincial Liberal government headed by Premier Kathleen Wynne formalized a plan to remove the mercury poisoning from the two rivers. The plan was announced in June 2017 and later made official via the English and Wabigoon Rivers Remediation Funding Act in November of that year. An amount of $85 million was transferred to a trust account with a bank, presumably to put the funding beyond the vagaries of political currents. In early 2018, a panel was formed to oversee the implementation of the plan. This panel included representatives from the two First Nations Reserves of Grassy Narrows and Wabasimoong, plus appointees from the Ontario government.

In June 2018, Ontarians elected a new Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Doug Ford. From publicly available information, it appears that the implementation of the Remediation Plan has stalled – a fact the opposition parties have seemingly failed to notice. Not only that, but also my efforts to bring it to their attention have failed to elicit a response.

Under the Act, the panel is required to submit a report each year, for the period from April 1 to March 31. The deadline for the panel to submit this report is June 1 of each year. The Act also requires the environment minister to table the report in the provincial parliament, after which it is to be made public. It is worth noting here the Act does not specify a deadline, or any time limit, for the minister to do so.

The latest panel report available is for the year 2019-2020. Although the panel did submit its report for the year 2020-2021 to the minister on June 1, 2021, it has not yet been tabled in the parliament, and therefore is not yet made available to the public. The department has said, on inquiry, that it would be published “later this year.”

The report for the year 2019-2020 shows that the actual implementation of the mercury remediation plan at Grassy Narrows had not begun by March 31, 2020, although the government had managed to disburse over $10 million from the $85 million fund. Crucially, that report also hints that the implementation work may not start for another five years (this would take us to March 2025). The report also forecasts that in the following three years, a sum of between $20 million to $40 million would be required “to continue the characterization of mercury in the river system and to assess options.” This would mean that $30 to $50 million would have been spent by the time the first shovel hits the ground (if it indeed does).

Finally, the report states that “Remediation professionals have advised that projects of this scale often require more funds than the current Trust balance provides.” This balance was $74.7 million as on the date of report. Clearly, the project is headed to being over-budget, but the more worrying realization is that there is no beginning in sight for its implementation.

I started my inquiry on this matter with the Ford government (initially via my MPP) on July 4. When I did not get a satisfactory answer, I started approaching MPPs from the opposition parties, including the NDP, Liberal, Green, and even Independents. Some haven’t replied at all (despite repeated efforts from my end), including the Leader of the Official Opposition (NDP) and Liberal MPP Kathleen Wynne herself, who put the remediation plan in place. Those who did reply haven’t given any commitment – or even a general idea – as to when they would take up this matter with the Ford government.

It is worth noting here that for two years, the panel report was tabled in the parliament, and even though it clearly showed that the mercury remediation work hadn’t started (while millions of dollars had been spent), none of the opposition parties took that up seriously (if at all) to hold the Ford government to account.

In the wake of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools across Canada, politicians from across the spectrum issued statements expressing grief and sympathy for our First Nations for the past tragedies. But in Ontario, across the political spectrum, our elected MPPs – those in government as well as in the opposition – have neglected the ongoing tragedy of the First Nations at Grassy Narrows and surrounding area.

Darshan Maharaja is a political blogger and uses his international experience to comment on socio-political issues in Canada.

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