Good morning, everyone. Thank you for tuning in and for arriving. We're at the indigenous and northern affairs standing committee of Parliament. We are so pleased to have you here on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people.
All Canadians are in a process of truth and reconciliation. Canada has a long history of colonization and policies that have oppressed a particular group of people who, historically, were extremely generous and helpful to settlers, and still are. We say this not only as a formality but also as an opportunity to reflect on our history, whether we come from here in Ottawa with the Algonquin people, or, like me, from the homeland of the Métis on Treaty No. 1 territory. Each and every Canadian has a role in this story, and I ask everyone to reflect on that.
Today, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are conducting a study on the Grassy Narrows First Nation and the issue of the mercury that was leaching into the Wabigoon River system. This is something that happened decades ago, and we know that people suffered because of that industrial development.
Thank you for coming.
We have before us the Department of Indigenous Services, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health. The presenters from each department will have 10 minutes, and after that we'll go into a series of questions.
On the order paper, I have us opening with the Department of Indigenous Services.
Keith Conn and Tom Wong, however you want to split it, when you're ready, please begin.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Good morning. Thank you for inviting us to appear before the committee to discuss the critical issue of mercury contamination, which is continuing to affect the community of Grassy Narrows.
Before I continue, I'd like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
To start, I'll give a brief history of mercury contamination that has impacted the community of Asubpeeschoseewagong, also known as Grassy Narrows. In 1970, it was discovered that there was a high level of mercury in the English-Wabigoon river system. The contamination was traced to an area pulp and paper mill, found to have been dumping effluent containing high levels of mercury into the water system for a number of years.
The communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nation, known as Whitedog, were deeply impacted, with much of the population of both communities having varying degrees of mercury exposure.
In 1986, two pulp and paper mill companies, together with the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario, paid a total of $16.67 million, in a one-time compensation payment to the two communities.
The same year, the provincial and federal governments established a Mercury Disability Board to oversee the administration of a trust fund from which benefits are paid to those showing symptoms of mercury poisoning. Indigenous Services Canada continues to recognize the importance of the ongoing work the Mercury Disability Board does for the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nation.
The branch I oversee—the first nations and Inuit health branch—which fell within the purview of Health Canada prior to the announcement of the creation of Indigenous Services Canada, has had historical involvement in evaluation of the human health impacts of mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system, and has been providing primary care and public health services to the community for decades. Primary health care, treatment and community-based services, including mental wellness programming and medical transportation, are currently provided to Grassy Narrows through nurses.
Since 1970, our department has been investigating and supporting assessments of the impacts of mercury contamination on the residents of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, which has included hair and blood sampling of community members, and monitoring and funding of environmental studies, as requested by the community.
Indigenous Services Canada has recently been working closely with Dr. Donna Mergler, a prominent environmental health researcher selected by the community of Grassy Narrows and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, to support the investigation of the long-term health impacts of historic mercury exposure.
We also provided funding in 2018-19 for an expert panel to review medical and scientific evidence that will inform the Mercury Disability Board. The work is well under way, and expected to conclude, with recommendations, by the end of 2019-20.
While the legacy of mercury poisoning impacts all the families in Grassy Narrows, the needs and aspirations of the community are not uniform. We need to support the whole community—children, youth, adults and the elderly population. We acknowledge that the community has been directly and indirectly impacted by mercury poisoning. Regardless of the underlying causes, we are working, and will continue to work with Grassy Narrows' leadership and first nations' partners to support improvements to the health and well-being of all community members.
This is why, on November 29, 2017, in a meeting with Grassy Narrows First Nation, the Governments of Ontario and Canada committed to fund the design, construction and operation of a mercury treatment centre in Grassy Narrows. We continue to work closely with Grassy Narrows and remain steadfast in our commitments to build a health facility that supports the unique needs of the community.
Early in 2018, funding was provided to the community to complete a feasibility study. Departmental officials have been working and meeting with Grassy Narrows' technical advisers to advance the project. The province has recently become engaged in this discussion and has committed to supply services that fall within its responsibility, such as physicians, specialists and allied health professionals.
It's imperative that Canada, Ontario and Grassy Narrows' leadership work together to ensure that the community receives the supports required.
As you are aware, the recently met with Grassy Narrows' leadership to discuss a memorandum of agreement on an approach that addresses the unique health needs of the community members of Grassy Narrows First Nation.
This agreement has not yet been signed. “Yet” is the key word. As the commented earlier this week before this committee, this is part of the negotiations. The government is committed to reaching an agreement that will meet the community needs. We will continue working with Chief Turtle and his council until we agree on a solution that meets the health needs of Grassy Narrows now and in the longer term.
In closing, Madam Chair, by collaborating with the community in Ontario on this innovative project, Indigenous Services Canada will continue to demonstrate its firm commitment to advancing reconciliation and improving the socio-economic and health outcomes of indigenous peoples.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Good morning Madam Chair and committee members.
I want to start by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people. My name is Susan Humphrey. I am the associate regional director general in Ontario region for Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Thank you for the invitation to appear before you today to discuss Environment and Climate Change Canada's role with respect to mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system. Protecting Canada's freshwater resources is a key priority for the Government of Canada. Responsibility for protection of freshwater quality in Canada is divided between the federal and provincial levels of government. In the case of mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system, the Government of Ontario has the lead on working with the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong first nations communities to clean up the problem.
This is a long-standing problem, with mercury contamination originating from pulp mill operations in the 1960s and the 1970s. Cleaning up mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system is an extremely challenging problem, with more than a 100 kilometres of river between the mill site and the first nation communities.
In 2017, the Government of Ontario announced $85 million towards cleaning up the contamination and it renewed its commitment to planning and implementing clean-up measures in cooperation with the first nation communities. Environment and Climate Change Canada is engaged in the remediation efforts led by the Government of Ontario. Specifically, the department is providing scientific and technical advice to the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks in relation to the remediation of aquatic contaminated sites and contaminated sediment remediation technologies.
Environment and Climate Change Canada officials will continue to contribute to the efforts that the federal government is making to provide relevant support to the Government of Ontario and the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong first nation communities as they work to resolve this serious issue.
Thank you, Madam Chair and members of the committee.
Good morning. My name is Greg Carreau and I'm the director of the water and air quality bureau at Health Canada.
I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we are meeting today is on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin nation.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss Health Canada's role in protecting Canadians from environmental risks to health. I will speak to the department's activities and expertise related to mercury and contaminated sites, first in general, and then as it relates to Grassy Narrows. Health Canada works closely with Environment and Climate Change Canada to protect the health of Canadians from environmental contaminants such as mercury through our chemicals management plan. This work is accomplished under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, which provides the authority for the federal government to take action to address harmful chemicals.
Mercury poses a host of human health risks. The health risks of mercury depend on its chemical form, route of exposure and the level of exposure. Mercury in its organic form, methylmercury, bioaccumulates up the food chain—for example, in fish—and is absorbed through the digestive tract and distributed throughout the body. It readily enters the brain, where it may remain for long periods of time. In pregnant women, it can cross the placenta and into the fetus.
A child's developing nervous system is particularly sensitive to mercury. Effects can include a decrease in IQ, delays in walking and talking, blindness and seizures. In adults, extreme exposure can lead to personality changes, changes in vision, deafness, loss of muscle coordination and sensation, intellectual impairment and even death. Cardiovascular, renal and carcinogenic effects have also been observed.
The federal government has taken action to reduce levels of mercury and risks to health. A wide range of regulatory and non-regulatory initiatives have effectively reduced mercury emissions in Canada. Since the 1970s, domestic sources of mercury emissions have been reduced by approximately 90%. Global efforts are also important, and Canada ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury in 2017, a global treaty to reduce mercury emissions and exposures.
Today, methylmercury exposure in Canadians is often linked to eating fish. Health Canada establishes standards for the amount of mercury permitted in retail fish. To further reduce exposure, Health Canada provides advice to Canadians on the consumption of certain types of fish known to contain higher levels of mercury.
Health Canada has undertaken research to evaluate the levels of mercury in Canadians. The Canadian health measures survey collects information from Canadians about their health and includes measurements of chemicals in blood and urine. Results found that over 99% of Canadians sampled had levels of mercury below the established methylmercury blood guidance levels. When levels of methylmercury in blood are below the guidance value, no negative health effects are expected.
Regarding the health risks of contaminated sites, Health Canada participates in the federal contaminated sites action plan. Health Canada's role is to provide expert advice, guidance, training and tools on the assessment and mitigation of health risks. The historical source of the mercury contamination that impacts Grassy Narrows First Nation has not been part of the federal contaminated sites action plan.
Health Canada has had historical involvement in evaluating the human health impacts of mercury contamination in the river system of the English and Wabigoon rivers. Beginning in the 1970s, Health Canada has been investigating the impacts of mercury on the residents of the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog communities. This work was carried out by Health Canada's first nations and Inuit health branch, which was transferred to Indigenous Services Canada in 2017. My colleague from Indigenous Services Canada described these activities earlier.
The residents of Grassy Narrows First Nation have been exposed to elevated levels of mercury resulting from past industrial practices. Health Canada is committed to continuing to work with partners to address the health risk posed by mercury, including our scientific expertise and any future collaborative action with Grassy Narrows First Nation.
I wish to thank the committee for the opportunity to appear today.
Good morning and thank you.
As I sit here and listen to the presentations, first I'm going to acknowledge my feelings, because as an indigenous MP listening to the presentations, it hurts a whole lot, and I think indigenous people across Canada are very, very upset, because both levels of government have been delaying, delaying, delaying. Studies were done, extensive studies—health impact, and economic studies, and the list goes on. Then I find it really disturbing when Minister the other day sat here and said he didn't sign the agreement because...he essentially, basically, blamed Grassy Narrows. I find that very disturbing still.
It leads me to believe that the government is thinking that it knows best. The impression that I have is that Minister and the department know better than what the people are asking. The people are frustrated, the people are hurting, the people are sick, the people need more and there's the trust issue—of course the trust issue is there—but the government is delaying, and I find it very difficult and very frustrating.
Going back to the funding, how can we ensure that the funding that Grassy Narrows is asking for...? Grassy Narrows, not the government, is asking for it to be completed ASAP. How can we speed the process up?
Thank you to all of you for coming here today.
Dr. Wong, you said there was still poisoning going on in the community.
Mr. Carreau, in your remarks, you noted that mercury poses a host of human health risks, including for the brain and pregnant women. It can cross the placenta into the fetus.
Health Canada refused to reveal the names of 150 residents who were identified at birth. The umbilical cord blood of babies was tested for 22 years, from 1970 to 1992, and 357 infants on reserve had testing data that sat somewhere. Some of it was, they said, in bank boxes in Thunder Bay and Ottawa. The information was slow and at times never even passed on.
If we're still having issues today, has this improved situation improved at Health Canada and your departments?
You're right. There's over 50 years of historical data in approximately 100 banker boxes. This data is owned by the individuals who were tested. This personal medical information has been released to the individuals who were tested. If you have an individual who, for example, was born to a mother whose cord blood was tested at the time of birth, the cord blood data was released to the mother.
Throughout the past 50 years, we've had ongoing requests from community members to get access to their personal medical information. I've been in the position for about two years, and I've had 40 or 50 individuals who have asked for their personal medical information. That information has been released upon request to the individual, or, depending on how they sign the consent, to the person with whom they want to share the information, such as a researcher or a physician. It is an individual's personal medical information.
That said, since, I think, the mid-1970s, upon request by researchers who had the support of the community, we have been releasing this data, and this data has been going to the researchers in a de-identifiable format. That means it doesn't have a date of birth or a name. You cannot identify who the individual is, but we have been releasing that data when requested.
We need to make sure that we protect individuals' personal medical information, and we have to respect the Privacy Act. If we released data without the appropriate measures in place, we'd be not in keeping with the Privacy Act.
My name is Chief Rudy Turtle. I acknowledge the indigenous land that we are on. Thank you for inviting me here today to speak to you.
I ask that you listen carefully and take my words to heart. I'm here on behalf of my people.
Our community has been poisoned by mercury. Our people are sick because the government let the companies dump mercury in our river. Our people still suffer because for many decades the government has done little to care for us. We get only the same inadequate support that any other first nation struggles with, but we have the added burden of mercury. It is not enough. The Government of Canada knows this. It has been written in expert reports over and over again. But when we seek support from Canada, we meet with delays and red tape.
More than 500 days ago, Canada promised to build and run a mercury care home in Grassy Narrows so that our sick loved ones will finally get the care and support they deserve. This was a solemn promise, and we celebrated it. I honour Jane Philpott, who was the minister then, for her fair dealing. We believed that help was finally on the way. Eighteen months later, only 1% of the funds to build the mercury care home have flowed, and the project is at a standstill.
We know the government has often broken its promises to Grassy Narrows. We suffer every day because of these broken promises. If this government is so slow to keep its promise, how can we believe that the next government will honour it? We cannot allow this promise of a mercury care home to be broken.
We have given Canada a chance to keep its promise to help our people who are suffering from mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. I have told I am prepared to sign an agreement that honours Canada's promise of securely funding the mercury care home by putting the money in a trust well before the election. This will give us the certainty we need that the care home will be built and the promise will be kept regardless of the shifting political winds in Ottawa. After 50 years of suffering, our people deserve this certainty.
The 30-year life-cycle cost of the facility is $89 million. That is $17 million for construction and $72 million to run it for the next 30 years. This is required to make sure our people will get the kind of care they need. Canada must also keep its promise for our comprehensive mercury table, to work with us to fix what mercury has hurt in our health, our culture and our livelihood. This must be done following the recommendation of an expert community health assessment and our first nation priorities. Instead, Canada has tried to push us into signing bad deals that shortchange us, do not provide certainty and will not give our people the care they need.
We have signed bad deals before because of the government's pressure, and we are still dealing with the fallout of those bad deals. I will not make a bad deal. I will only sign something that I know my grandchildren will look back on and say their grandfather was a wise man who stood up for his people. Before I sign anything, I need to be sure the mercury care home will be built and it will give our loved ones the care they need. I need to see that the money to finish the job is there and cannot be taken away. After so many words, we need actions that our people can rely on. We have been seeking justice for 50 years. When will our loved ones who are hurting from mercury poisoning finally have a place where they can be cared for with dignity?
We have invited to come to Grassy Narrows five times to see the suffering and to help us. He has refused.
Prime Minister Trudeau, I invite you today to show that you care by coming to Grassy Narrows and putting the full funds for the mercury home in a trust so we will know that you will keep your word. I urge you to find it in your heart to do the right thing for us.
To my people, I pledge that as your chief I will keep fighting for you until we have the justice we need. I will fight until the mercury home is built, everyone is compensated for the terrible impacts of mercury and we finally have the justice we deserve.
Thank you again, Madam Chair.
My name is Grant Wedge. I am the assistant deputy minister of the negotiations and reconciliation division of the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs in Ontario.
I'm here to talk today with you about the role of the ministry in relation to the mercury disability benefits that are paid to members of both the Grassy Narrows First Nation that Chief Turtle represents and the Wabaseemoong Independent First Nations. That's of course in connection with the mercury contamination in the English and Wabigoon rivers.
I am joined today by my colleague Frank Miklas from the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
My focus is on providing the committee with information about the actions that Ontario has taken and continues to take regarding mercury disability benefits.
The mercury disability fund and the Mercury Disability Board were established by Ontario's 1986 English and Wabigoon River Systems Mercury Contamination Settlement Agreement Act. Let's just call it the “mercury act” for short. It governs the administration of benefit payments to the members of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong. Under the act, Ontario is responsible for maintaining the mercury disability fund at a level sufficient to cover all payments to qualifying benefit recipients. If I can just clarify, that is then a 100% contribution by the Government of Ontario to that fund.
Ontario contributed about $35 million to the payment of benefits between 1986 and January 2019. In addition, both Ontario and Canada contribute on a fifty-fifty basis towards the administrative and operating costs of the Mercury Disability Board, the MDB. The government representative, Keith Conn, was referring to that in his testimony.
The board consists of seven members, including a chairperson selected by the parties. Just to note, the most recent chair was Evelyn Baxter, a first nation's member who was appointed just last month to the Ontario provincial Court of Justice. We're now looking for a new chair. It also consists of one member from each of the two first nations, two qualified physicians and two other members. These two other members are normally representatives of Ontario and Canada, but that's not a requirement under the act.
The board members are appointed by a four-member search committee that is responsible for appointing and replacing members of the board. The search committee includes one representative from each of Ontario, Canada, Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong. In fact, it is usually the chiefs from the two communities who are the direct participants on that search committee.
Benefits are paid from the mercury disability fund to the members of the Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong who demonstrate symptoms that are reasonably consistent with mercury poisoning. These may be symptoms set out in a table of known conditions—for example, tremors, incoordination, visual impairment, or other symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning that may significantly impair the quality of life or limit the activities of an applicant. That is done through a physician review.
As of April 30, 2019, there are 263 people from the two first nations who are receiving benefits, 143 from Chief Turtle's community of Grassy Narrows and 120 from Wabaseemoong.
Following a review of MDB compensation, last fall the Ontario government committed to indexing the benefits annually to changes in inflation, as measured by the consumer price index. As a result, people saw their benefit payments almost double, beginning last November. For example, someone who was then receiving the $800 maximum payment per month prior to indexation now receives $1,720 per month.
At the time of the announcement, our minister, Minister Greg Rickford, said that Ontario hoped that these increases would help change people's lives for the better. I have provided, in English only, the news release that was issued at that time. Minister Rickford said it was unacceptable that the payments had been frozen for the previous 30 years.
To be clear, the amount is exempt from provincial taxation and does not count as income for the purpose of reducing any other benefit for which a recipient may qualify, including, for instance, the Ontario disability support program. In addition to indexing benefits on a go-forward basis, the indexation was also provided retroactively to those who were receiving benefits as of March 31, 2018. So if someone had been receiving the benefits for the last 10 years, they then received a lump sum payment to cover the 10 years of inflation.
In total, the retroactive payment to individual recipients in 2018 was $11,700,000. The number of community members who were assessed for benefits in 2018-19 included 164 adults,120 from Grassy Narrows and 44 from Wabaseemoong; and 12 children, 11 from Grassy Narrows and one from Wabaseemoong.
Thus far in 2019, this current year, there have been 75 adult assessments, 60 from Grassy Narrows and 15 from Wabaseemoong, and a further three pediatric assessments, all from Grassy Narrows. The program has experienced a 14.3% increase in the number of recipients over the past year. Those are new recipients.
If I may, I'd like to speak about some other recent developments.
Ontario is now fast-tracking MDB recipients who apply for benefits and other payments from the Ontario disability support program in addition to, or on top of, their MDB payments. As of 2018, provincial regulations governing ODSP have changed so that anyone who has previously received an award from the Mercury Disability Board will now automatically qualify for provincial disability support provided they qualify financially.
Before this change, anyone who received mercury disability awards would then have to apply separately for ODSP. I recognize it may feel like a small change, but it has significantly reduced the application burden for people who now receive both ODSP and MDB benefits. Since 2018 there have been 20 new ODSP clients from Grassy Narrows, 13 of whom have come through this new prescribed process, and four at Wabaseemoong.
In addition, the federal government is providing funding for an expert panel that is assisting the board to look into opportunities to modernize the MDB's clinical assessment process.
Madam Chair, members of the committee, in closing I would just say that I hope I have given you a sense of what it is that my ministry, Indigenous Affairs, is responsible for with regard to the MDB issues. We have taken steps to increase payments to people who have gone as many as 30 years without an increase and to reduce the burden of applications.
I'll be pleased to take questions following my colleague's remarks.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquins.
Thank you, Madam Chair and members of the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs, for inviting Ontario this morning to talk about the role of our province in addressing the mercury contamination in the English and Wabigoon rivers, and its impact on local indigenous communities.
As you know, my name is Frank Miklas. I'm the director of the northern region with the ministry of the environment, conservation and parks.
My focus today is to provide the committee with information on the role of my ministry in addressing the important and challenging issue of mercury contamination in the English and Wabigoon rivers. I will tell the committee about the actions Ontario has taken and continues to take to identify contaminated sites and implement a remediation plan for the English and Wabigoon rivers.
During the 1960s and 1970s a chlor-alkali plant in Dryden released around 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River. Mercury was used to make bleach in the chlor-alkali plant, and mercury escaped into the river through the mill effluent, affecting both the English and Wabigoon rivers. Similar plants operated around the world at that time.
In 1970, mercury contaminated fish was traced back to the Dryden mill, and the Province of Ontario issued a pollution control order to stop the discharge of mercury from the mill. The chlor-alkali plant was decommissioned in 1975.
In the 1980s, the federal and provincial governments established the Canada/Ontario steering committee to conduct studies in the Wabigoon River to determine the location and extent of contamination options for remediation. These recommendations were provided to a separate Canada/Ontario technical review committee, which consulted with stakeholders and made recommendations to Canada and Ontario.
In 1985, Canada and Ontario accepted the recommendations from the Canada/Ontario technical review committee, and both governments made the decision to pursue national attenuation of the river system due to concerns over the possible remobilization of the mercury.
Since the 1970s, mercury levels in fish in parts of the English and Wabigoon rivers have declined. However, current mercury levels in fish remain high, and consumption advisories are still in effect in many parts of the river system.
The mercury contamination affecting the English and Wabigoon rivers is a priority matter for the Province of Ontario. In 2018, Ontario established and funded the $85 million English and Wabigoon rivers remediation trust under the English and Wabigoon Rivers Remediation Funding Act. The act was enacted in 2017 to provide for the funding of the remediation of contaminants in the English and Wabigoon rivers. To date, approximately $13 million has been approved for use from the trust.
The act also enabled the establishment of the English and Wabigoon rivers remediation trust panel. The panel comprises members who represent Grassy Narrows First Nation, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, and the Government of Ontario, and is responsible for directing the expenditure of the funding from the trust.
Other local indigenous communities also participate in panel discussions, including Eagle Lake First Nation, Wabauskang First Nation and Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation.
The trust can be used for the following remediation activities: preventing or reducing the risk of a discharge of mercury; reducing the presence, concentration or bio-availability of mercury, including its presence and concentration in fish; and post-remediation monitoring.
Funds can also be used for related indigenous community engagement costs.
Considerable scientific work, both in the English and Wabigoon rivers and on the Dryden mill site, is currently in progress to assess the current state of the mercury contamination and the source of contamination. That information is necessary to determine the best remediation actions.
Ontario has been undertaking pre-remediation science activities in collaboration with local indigenous communities in the river since 2016.
This work is being done in collaboration with Grassy Narrows First Nation, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, Eagle Lake First Nation, Wabauskang First Nation and Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation.
The purpose of the river assessment work is to collect important information about the current contamination levels in sediment and in fish in the river system.
This work includes collecting samples from surface water, sediment and biota, meaning fish and invertebrates from the English and Wabigoon rivers system. More work will be undertaken over the next few months, including sampling programs led by Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemoong and Wabigoon Lake. That work has been approved and will be funded by the panel.
This information will support the identification and evaluation of options for remediation and the setting of remediation goals and objectives. Ontario recognizes the importance of transparency in a project of this scale. That is why our scientific results are shared with the local indigenous communities for their review and why we have a team of dedicated experts available to answer any questions they may have.
While the work on the river system is taking place, an assessment of the Dryden mill site by the owner is currently under way to determine whether the site is an ongoing source of mercury to the river so that action can be taken.
The mill site assessment is being completed through a transparent process that includes involvement of the communities most affected by the mercury contamination in the river system. We believe in involving indigenous communities at every step of the way. Grassy Narrows First Nation, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, Eagle Lake First Nation, Wabauskang First Nation and Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation are all involved in the assessment work ongoing at the Dryden mill site. Information about the status of the assessment is done through our working group, which was established in 2017 to act as a forum for regular communication among our ministry, indigenous communities and the mill site property owner.
A site assessment is part of the work that needs to be completed to determine whether mercury is present and potentially migrating to the river. It is being done in two phases. The first phase, completed in 2018, established the presence of elevated mercury concentrations in the soil and groundwater at the mill site.
The work plan for this year will assess whether this mercury is leaving the site and getting into the river system and, if it is, in what quantity. This is the focus of the next step of the assessment. If results of the mill site assessment show that mercury is being discharged from the site to the Wabigoon River, Ontario will ensure that action is taken to appropriately address mercury discharges from the site. The mercury contamination affecting the English and Wabigoon rivers is a very complex issue that requires meticulous scientific work to determine the best remediative course of action. We know there continues to be significant work ahead of us.
Ontario is completely committed to continuing to work with indigenous communities and our partners, including the Government of Canada, to identify mercury-contaminated sites in the English and Wabigoon Rivers and to develop and implement a plan to appropriately remediate these sites.
On behalf of the Province of Ontario, we want to thank you, Madam Chair and members of the committee, for the opportunity to appear before you to discuss this important issue.
First of all, for the initial meeting, we met in Toronto. I clearly told Anne Scotton and her team that I had to take this agreement back home to see if my members would approve it. The first thing I made clear was that I couldn't just say, “Yes, I'll sign it.” I had to take it home first and have our team look it over. Right there, they made the mistake of assuming that I was just going to sign it, when I clearly told them in Toronto that I had to take it home first for approval.
As you are aware, there are processes that you have to go through. As chief, I just can't say yes. It would be wrong. I would be a bad leader if I just said yes—even today, to anybody here. I have to take things home and review them with my council, with my team members, before I can sign anything. That's the first thing I told them, and I said that very clearly.
Second, they did not punch in the numbers. They only gave me numbers for phase one, which was the upgrade of the clinic or addition to the clinic that we now have. They gave us the numbers when they arrived in Grassy Narrows, so how could I sign something, a blank piece of paper? I can only sign something when it's all filled in. That was the first thing. Nobody signs a blank sheet of paper.
There were other issues that we identified. Number one, we asked for a mercury treatment facility, not an assisted-living home. Second, we asked for a trust fund similar to the one that Ontario set up. That is just for certainty, should there be a change of government or a change of policy, whatever, so that we could make sure this facility would keep going. Those weren't added in.
I thank the NDP very much for the opportunity to have some time here.
I greet you, Chief Turtle. Thank you for your phone call a couple of nights ago and for our conversation again yesterday. I want to send greetings to the entire Asubpeeschoseewagong community. I want to speak in support of the request the community has made for a trust fund. I think I share that sentiment with my colleagues who have offered me this time.
Chief, when we talked about this, you gave me the reasons you believe it's important. We talked about the moral imperative, about the fact that thousands of people—both in your community and in surrounding communities—have been impacted by the mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system, and about how there is no other group of Canadians who would accept suffering such health consequences and not have appropriate health facilities to treat them.
The commitment was made on behalf of the government, as I know very well. I believe that it's incumbent upon the government to continue with that commitment.
You and others have outlined a clear clinical need. I urge people who haven't read the Mergler report to do so. It does outline not only the effects on adults, but the severe neurological effects on children of mercury contamination.
Chief, you talked to me about the exceptional circumstances that you're under and that is why you have asked for this $89-million trust. My question for you is: What do you think are the reasons it has not come to pass? I have a list of five potential theories; I wonder if any of them are reasons that you have as to why this agreement has not yet been reached.
Earlier, the officials talked about the fact that it was the mechanism of a contribution agreement versus a trust fund that was the debate. I wonder if, in fact, it's not so much the mechanism, but the amount of money because the amount of money in the trust fund is significantly larger—in the order of $89 million. However, I would argue that one can calculate $89 million to be 0.025% of what the federal government is going to spend this year. I think most Canadians would argue that spending 0.025% of this year's money to give 30 years of treatment to the people of Grassy Narrows is a very good investment.
The second possibility I have heard is that it's a question of time. Officials talked about the fact that they didn't have time to prepare the details of the trust fund. I wonder, Chief, whether you think that the thousands of officials who work in Indigenous Services Canada—along with their colleagues, the thousands of officials who work in Finance Canada—could not somehow find the time over the next couple of weeks to write up what would be necessary for a trust fund, knowing that there are examples in Ontario and others that we've heard about this morning that could be seen as a template for this.
The third theory I have is that it's a lack of political will. I don't actually believe that to be the case. I know my colleagues in the Liberal Party and in the government want to do right by indigenous peoples, so it is my sense that this is not the actual problem. I think there is, as others have said here, a shared political will of all members of Parliament to see justice for the people of Asubpeeschoseewagong.
The fourth theory I have is the trust issue. The spoke last week about the fact that possibly you weren't trusting the government to be able to come through with the long-term expenses. My theory is that perhaps it's the other way around. Do you think it's possible that the government doesn't trust you and your officials to be able to administer a trust fund appropriately? I'll put that to you as a possibility.
The fifth area that I think may be a stumbling block is that, in my understanding, this would be because of the size of an $89-million trust fund. It would require an off-cycle budget ask from a government that's just tabled its final budget. If that is the case, Chief, I wonder if there's a way that we could support you—and perhaps members of this committee could support you—by collectively asking the to consider the possibility of an off-cycle budget ask, even at this late stage, in order to find the money necessary for this trust fund.
Imagine the legacy that this government could share with you and your community, Chief, as well as the members of this 42nd Parliament, if in fact this could be put in place before the end of the term.
I'd be interested in your thoughts on whether there are other reasons that I haven't considered and in what ways we could support you to be successful in the coming weeks.