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 Minister of Indigenous Services 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 minister 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.