Grassy Narrows First Nation hails $90M for care home as a step toward ‘full mercury justice’

The Grassy Narrows First Nation took a step forward in its decades-long fight for justice Monday, as the federal government agreed to provide $90 million for a care home that will treat those poisoned by mercury.

The long-awaited deal includes $68.9 million in a trust for operational and servicing costs over 30 years, and an agreement to periodically review the funding levels. Ottawa had previously agreed to provide $19.5 million for construction costs of the facility.

Chief Randy Fobister, who inked the deal with Services Minister Marc Miller on Monday, said challenges remain for the community but in a statement he called the agreement a “milestone” and said it represented progress toward “full mercury justice.”

“I respect Minister Miller for taking this important step today toward keeping his word,” he said. “We expect Canada to continue to honour this sacred promise, and we will make sure of that.”

The pollution blamed for the mercury poisoning began in the 1960s, when the Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River upstream of Grassy Narrows in northern Ontario.

Over the past three years, the Star and scientists have revealed that fish near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province; that there are mercury-contaminated soil and river sediments at or near the site of the old mill; and that the provincial government knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under that site and never told anyone in Grassy Narrows or nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations. Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and pollutes the river.

The effects of mercury poisoning can be lifelong. It is known to cause slurred speech, tunnel vision and tremors. Some have said there’s never been true recognition from the government of the damage caused to the community.

For years, Grassy Narrows has been pushing for money from the federal government so that it could build and operate a care home for those who have been poisoned. The community has also been demanding financial compensation for those suffering. To date, about 14 per cent of Grassy Narrows members have received compensation, according to the community.

The new care home, once completed, is expected to offer palliative care, physiotherapy, counselling, traditional healing and have both in- and outpatient services. It will be able to treat 22 in-patients.

Judy Da Silva has been going to protests and advocating for a care home for years. Seeing the minister come to Grassy Narrows to sign the agreement made for a “powerful” moment, she said.

“Once they start building the mercury home — like right now, our community people at the level they’re at, it’s like a disbelief in government promises,” she said.

“Once they see the ground breaking, they’ll know it’s for real.”

Several former federal Indigenous Services ministers, including Jane Philpott and Seamus O’Regan, have tried to make headway on the deal, but it had stalled through the years.

Meanwhile, survivors of the pollution have had to travel far outside the community in order to get the care they’ve needed.

After having to travel between Kenora and a Thunder Bay facility 600 kilometres from Grassy Narrows to get care while he struggled with a degenerative neurological disorder, former chief and care-home advocate Steve Fobister died in 2018. In 2014, he carried out a brief hunger strike on the doorstep of the Ontario legislature, requesting a care home for those who had been poisoned by mercury.

In 2017, the federal government pledged to deal with the issue “once and for all” after the Star found mercury-tainted soil behind the old mill. While she was Indigenous Services minister, Philpott struck a feasibility study for a care home.

But by 2019 there were concerns that movement on the project had stalled. When Miller, the current minister, took over, there was once again progress and after some rocky back and forth, in 2020, a deal was signed for the construction portion of the funding.

“Our work is not done,” said Fobister. “There is still much more that needs to be done to restore the damage that mercury has done to our community.”

With files from David Bruser

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