ONTARIO ENVIRONMENT COMMISSIONER HIGHLY CRITICAL OF GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO POLLUTION IN FIRST NATIONS TERRITORIES
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By Stuart Smith
The Ontario government has "long turned a blind eye to pollution of indigenous communities", the province's environmental watchdog decried on Tuesday.
Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe made the scathing comments at a press conference marking the publishing of Environment Commission Ontario's (ECO) annual report.
The report is highly critical of the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change's lackluster attempts to deal with historic pollution in Ontario's indigenous communities, including at Grassy Narrows where the watercourse has been polluted with toxic levels of mercury for over half a century.
The contamination has left the 1000 strong community in Northwestern Ontario with nearly two-in-three people suffering from symptoms of minamata—a serious neurological disease.
The pollution comes from the site of an old paper mill 100 kilometres upstream at Dryden. Despite the mill ceasing operations in 1970, a scientific study conducted this year found that mercury deposits are still being released into the river.
After decades of inaction by the provincial government, the report laments that it is only this year that the ministry pledged funding and expertise to address the "historic wrong".
Commissioner Saxe told WaterToday that the ECO has been "following, reporting and interacting" with the Aamjiwnaaang First Nation for over a decade, and this report marks the first time they have published a report specifically addressing the problems at Grassy Narrows.
Although the federal government is primarily responsible for First Nation water regulation and infrastructure, she said the government of Ontario can—and should—help.
Of 133 First Nation communities in Ontario, 36 are affected by drinking water advisories and of these, 17 have been in effect for more than a decade.
Grassy Narrows has been under a do not consume (DNC) advisory since the summer of 2014.
Dr Saxe highlighted what she saw as serious systematic hypocrisy: "Such conditions would not be tolerated elsewhere in Ontario, yet they [indigenous communities] have long been deemed unworthy of priority, effort, or expense".
She explained there were "no firm plans" for further reports on water pollution in indigenous communities at the moment, but the ECO have reported on how mercury contaminates ecosystems in the past.