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Governments need to work together to clean up Grassy Narrows water

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Garssy Narrows. Photo: Howl Arts Collective/flickr

After decades of lobbying, with the inclusion of international doctors and researchers, and successful River Run demonstrations here in Toronto, it seems like both levels of government are finally willing to own up to their role in the failure to prevent -- and most importantly -- to clean up the toxic water and soil of Grassy Narrows, which has permanently damaged bodies and minds.

Th federal government, with a sometimes smiling and sometimes teary leader, Justin Trudeau, has played a good game of claiming to support a radical new way to treat First Nation issues.

His path to victory as our country's leader was paved in part on Indigenous votes who, after decades and decades of mistreatment, finally fell under a "Yes We Can" magical type of political promise that a vote for Trudeau junior would mean a better relationship with the federal government.  

The provincial government whose leader, Kathleen Wynne, was at one point the go-to public official when it came to lobbying the provincial government to radically (or at least subtly) alter the course of Indigenous-government relations.

But Ontario co-operation in helping to clean up the chemical damage around Grassy Narrows was not an easy deal to secure.

Fish from the English-Wabigoon River System has up to 150 times the safe daily dose of mercury, but a wholesale clean-up could end the damage caused decades ago when the pulp and paper industry dumped heavy metals into the river system -- and no political party seemed to really care.

Even the NDP, while paying lip service to the cause of Grassy Narrows, provided a much better critique of the Liberals but a big unknown if they ever found themselves in the seat of power.

Members of the Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations have every right to be wary of government promises.

I know the Ontario Liberal party likes to shine the sun on itself since Kathleen Wynne used to be the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, so it only makes political sense that she wants to be seen as their champion.

The good news started rolling in at the end of May 2016, when scientists came to the conclusion that the English-Wabigoon water system could feasibly be cleaned up if there was enough money available to do the job and do it properly.

You see, community members from both reservations rely upon the English-Wabigoon river system to provide their communities with fish, as the cost of purchasing other forms of protein for their diets can be prohibitive. While their health is very important, that is not the only concern. They have a right to live and gather food within their traditional territories, a right re-affirmed by Canada's adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

The Declaration guarantees the right of Indigenous peoples to enjoy and practice their cultures, their customs, their religions and their languages; to develop and strengthen their economies and their social and political institutions. Indigenous peoples have the right to be free from discrimination and the right to a nationality.

As with most politics, the trick's in finding a politician and a party willing to fund the actual clean up for the full amount, no half-measures.

The Liberals under Wynne seemed like they were willing to at least commit to the job.

Grassy Narrows First Nation had received a settlement back in 1985 from the federal government and the Reed Paper Company that bought out the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company and its sister-company Dryden Chemical Company, but the mercury was never actually removed from the water.

The water and soil contamination from mercury causes a debilitating and deadly disability, which still impacts residents to this day, generations after the pulp and paper plant shut down.

Minamata disease, which first occurred in the town of Minamata, Japan, in 1956, is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Minamata disease is terrible, resulting in symptoms from body tremors to effects on the brain.  It can be chronic, tainting the blood of those exposed to too much mercury as much as it can poison the water and soil.

Clear-cutting -- Grassy Narrows has the longest running blockade in Canadian history -- only causes more contamination as toxic but previously rooted contaminated soil runs off the land due to erosion into the already contaminated river system.

After intense lobbying and allies lining up behind the people of Grassy Narrows, the Ontario government finally in June 2017 pledged $85 million to clean up the mercury contamination of the English-Wabigoon River system. An additional $2.7 million is budgeted by Queen's Park to accelerate work already underway on the river.

Chief and council of the First Nation community in Northern Ontario are thankful for the commitment of the Ontario government, but they know they are also going to need the help of the federal government in order for the situation to finally be set right.

"The people of Grassy Narrows have fought for more than 40 years to hear [this]," David Suzuki said after visiting Grassy Narrows. "The government needs to promptly implement a remediation plan for the river that has been developed by Grassy Narrows and their science advisers on a strict timeline for action."

Yes, it is also true that the federal government has pledged to fund an in-community mercury treatment centre at a cost of at least $4.5 million.

But talk is just talk and promises are just promises.

And while Grassy Narrows community members are thrilled by the announcement -- their chief called it a "dream come true" -- the federal government should partner with the Ontario government to fund the total clean-up of the river system lands.

Fundamentally, what we are talking about here is Justin Trudeau's pledge to clean up poisoned drinking water and subsequent boil and food advisories.  

"Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade," according to a CBC News investigation, and it has not gotten much better in 2017 or 2018. Grassy Narrows is obviously among them.

While flashier campaigns such as the legalization of marijuana captivate the public and the media, Trudeau has also promised to clean up the water supply of Indigenous communities across Canada.

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister is calling on Prime Minister Trudeau to act immediately to stop the ongoing contamination and commit to cleaning the river.

Access to clean running water to drink and clean water to fish, is not a luxury but a necessity. It is more than just a campaign promise, it's got to be seen as a fundamental health and environmental right.

Photo: Howl Arts Collective/flickr

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