Grassy Narrows First Nation is in northwestern Ontario, down-river from Dryden
The community experiences serious pollution from mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin. It causes brain damage. The pollution came from a pulp mill in Dryden. The company produced bleaching chemicals. That process released liquid mercury metal into the English-Wabigoon river system. This began in the 1960s and continued for about 25 years. But the problem still exists. The water at Grassy Narrows is still unfit to drink. The fish contain poison.
The Ontario Government simply told the First Nations people not to eat the fish. But fish was a staple in their diet. The Wynne government pledged money to plan clean-up, but no environmental clean-up has occurred.
Long before I became a minister, I taught environmental chemistry at the University of Guelph. I knew about the pollution problem at Grassy Narrows as long ago as the late 1970s. I even taught it to my students.
How the polluters avoided responsibility
In the case of Grassy Narrows, the Reed Paper Co. polluted the English-Wabigoon River system. In 1979, forty years ago, the Ontario Government protected Reed Paper from environmental liability for the pollution. The government said that “enabling the modernization and upgrading of the plant in the community of Dryden was in the public interest”. What this really means is the government let the polluters off the hook in exchange for preserving jobs in Dryden. Worse still, the federal government pledged to build a treatment centre for those suffering the effects of mercury poisoning. But no centre yet exists.
Industrial and mining companies can set up shop in Canada without any commitment to clean up any pollution they cause. We, the tax-payers, have to pay for clean-up – if any. The protection that the Ontario Government gave Reed Paper is still valid for all later owners of the mill. None of them have any liability for the pollution they caused. That 1979 deal makes the pollution at Grassy Narrows our collective responsibility.