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Fisheries Act and UN convention require Trudeau to take action on English-Wabigoon River

The Council of Canadians was at the annual River Run event in Toronto in June 2016 demanding justice for Grassy Narrows.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is obliged both through the Fisheries Act and international law to help clean-up the English-Wabigoon River.

The English-Wabigoon River was polluted by a Dryden, Ontario pulp and paper mill deliberately dumping 10 tonnes of mercury into the river system.

The Toronto Star has reported, “For the residents of Grassy Narrows First Nation who have fished Clay Lake [situated along the Wabigoon River], walleye is a dietary staple. Now a comprehensive analysis of provincial data conducted for the Star confirms what has long been suspected: the walleye they are eating are the most mercury-contaminated in the province. The mercury in an average meal of walleye from Clay Lake is 15 times the daily tolerable intake limit for adults, and about 40 times the limit for women of child-bearing age, pregnant women and children.”

That article adds, “Physical symptoms of mercury poisoning include loss of muscle co-ordination, slurred speech and tunnel vision. Recent scientific research on the effects of the neurotoxin show the poisoning occurs at low levels previously thought harmless, and that fetuses are particularly vulnerable to cognitive damage.”

While Trudeau had vowed in January to take action “once and for all”, he now says it’s “very much” Ontario’s responsibility to do the clean-up. Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Simon Fobister says, “How can Trudeau say that he is reconciling with First Nations while passing the buck on cleaning up an ongoing toxic leak that has plagued our health and undermined our culture for fifty years?”

The Canadian Press now reports, “Ottawa has an obligation under international law to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights at issue in Grassy Narrows, said Richard Pearshouse, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Geneva. Pearshouse, who paid a visit to Grassy Narrows First Nation in December, said Canada is a signatory to a brand new United Nations convention on mercury, known as the Minamata Convention. ‘Hopefully quite soon Canada will ratify that convention and when it does, there will be new obligations under international law.'”

That article also notes, “Richard Lindgren, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, there are number of federal responsibilities that warrant further involvement, he said, including fisheries – relevant because of the ever-present dangers of mercury contamination in fish that swim in polluted waters. The federal Fisheries Act expressly prohibits the depositing of harmful substances into water populated by fish, including those species that support indigenous fisheries, Lindgren added.”

On February 13, the Ontario government committed to a “comprehensive remediation action plan” for the river system, but no schedule has been announced, the remediation has not begun, and the work is not done.

The Council of Canadians first expressed its solidarity with the Grassy Narrows First Nation in April 2010.

For numerous blogs about the mercury contamination faced by the Grassy Narrows First Nation, please click here.