The Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation has taken important steps forward in its quest for mercury justice, with support from three political visitors this fall.
Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and NDP critic for Indigenous Youth Charlie Angus met with the community’s chief and council to discuss the affects of mercury poisoning on the reserve, and how the party intends to do a full clean up of the land and water if brought into power in the 2019 election.
“One of the big things we heard is that there’s been some commitments at the provincial level but there’s been no commitment at the federal level to actually do anything to clean up the mercury,” said Singh in an interview.
“And what we need is a commitment, and so I would, if I was prime minister, make that commitment — let’s put federal dollars into cleaning up the water, protecting the environment and giving the people the justice they deserve in this land.”
Asubpeeschoseewagong, also known as Grassy Narrows, and Wabaseemoong, also known as White Dog, were poisoned by a pulp and paper mill in Dryden, Ont. in the early 1960s, which dumped mercury into the Wabigoon River. The contamination shut down the communities’ livelihood from fishing and guiding, and made the people sick.
Ontario Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford also came to announce a provincial contribution: a retroactive increase in mercury disability benefits to reflect the rate of inflation.
"Increasing these disability payments will help change people's lives for the better," said Rickford in a press release.
"These payments have been frozen for over 30 years and that is unacceptable. This is one small part of the work we are doing to address the longstanding challenges faced by people in Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong.”
According to a news statement released by Grassy Narrows, one of those challenges includes compensation for mercury contamination. Only a small group of people in the reserve receives mercury payments — 5.9 per cent of the population. The majority of people on the reserve are rejected in their applications to the Mercury Disability Board.
“This is a step forward in righting one of the many wrongs that have been done to us,” said Chief Rudy Turtle in the news statement.
“But our people still suffer every day and most have never received any compensation for the poisoning of our families and our community. I call on Ontario to compensate all our people fairly and to help us rebuild the health, livelihood, and independence that we once enjoyed.”
One of the other important issues that’s ongoing in Grassy Narrows is there’s not enough money for the education system. Singh said in an interview during his visit that First Nations children deserve to have a well-funded education system, and called it a “basic human right.”
“…There’s also an even higher responsibility (in Grassy Narrows) given that the impacts of mercury have connections to some outcomes with children, and there is an even heightened responsibility, even more responsibility, to make sure there are special needs resources available, because there’s that impact of mercury that has impacted kids as well,” he said.