Photo via WikiMedia Commons.
First Nation people in northwestern Ontario are living on the bulk of what the province deems 'high-priority' contaminated sites. Everything from petroleum to what is commonly referred as ‘BTEX’—a group of compounds known to cause severe human health effects have contaminated land in Canada’s most populated province. According to the Treasury Board’s federal contaminated site inventory, of the 148 sites rated as high-priority for action in the province, 134 are in northwestern Ontario.
All sites are in First Nation communities or ‘reserves’ as defined by the Indian Act. Almost all sites are the responsibility of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Some of the contaminated sites are as large as 4,500 cubic meters or can even be measured in the tonnes. An additional 27 sites are currently being tested, but the list could grow as 55 more sites are suspected to have contaminants.
Chiefs of Ontario, a political organization representing 133 First Nations in the province, say most of the contamination is old industrial waste: "In the north, we experience significant contamination mainly from forestry, pulp and paper, mining, and also radar sites in the far north,” says Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy. But analysts from the Chiefs of Ontario’s environment sector warn of new contamination sites in the future, given the region is facing an unprecedented wave of development. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat maintains the federal contaminated sites inventory. In the inventory, sites are categorized by classification (high, medium to low risk) and include information about the type of contaminant, amount, and last step taken. The government uses a 10-step process to address contaminated sites; step one is the testing phase, step 10 is usually long-term monitoring after the site has been cleaned up.
One of the most contaminated sites listed in the inventory is the Marten Falls First Nation, located 300 km northeast of Thunder Bay. The community's lands have five sites that are listed as high-priority, with contaminated soil estimated to be in the tonnes. The contaminated sites are an old school, sawmill, former general store, defunct diesel power generating station and the current Ministry of Transportation grounds. Petroleum hydrocarbons (in this case old diesel) and BTEX’s are most commonly listed contaminants; all of these sites are located within a 50-kilometre radius of residents.The sites in Marten Falls are at 'stage 7,' meaning the government has begun cleaning it up, a process that could take years. The community with the second highest level of contamination is the Sachigo Lake First Nation. Located 425 km north of Sioux Lookout, the community also has tons of contaminated soil—most of it caused by an old mine. First Nation communities with over 10,000 and up to 50,000 cubic meters of contaminants are: Sandy Lake, Attawapiskat, North Caribou Lake, and Bearskin Lake First Nation. Only 10 First Nation communities in the north of the 134 reached stage 10 (optional, long-term monitoring).
“It (the contamination) falls to the ground it goes to the water, fish eat it and other animals,” says Chief Beardy. "The concerns have to do with the health of our people.”
But there are also sites in the inventory that are categorized as high priority, yet have no information about the amount of contaminants present. There are currently 25 such sites in the north that are the responsibility of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
One of those 25 sites is on the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (formerly Grassy Narrows), the home of activist Judy Da Silva, 52. Although the exact level of contamination is not listed in the inventory, Da Silva knows first hand the effects it's had. Since the 1960s her community has lived with the impacts of methyl mercury caused by the logging industry.
Mercury poisoning caused by the contamination has left some community members stricken with an extremely rare neurological condition known as Minamata Disease. “The forest was our economic base and because of the mercury pollution, it knocked the legs off our way of living,” says Da Silva.
The mercury poisoning leeched into the waterways, causing the closure of the commercial fishery and tourism industry that was the livelihood of First Nations there. “People will (still) go down the river," Da Silva says, but only out of desperation for food.
Da Silva's own father passed away last fall. "He had high levels of mercury, he was a commercial fisherman when he was a young man," she says. Da Silva says her father suffered from speech and hearing impairments and had difficulty walking and maintaining balance. Da Silva is experiencing a few of these symptoms now. She said she's been eating the local fish most of her life. Like her dad, she is now receiving benefits from the Mercury Disability Board. It's a compensation scheme resulting from the community's mercury settlement in 1986. To be approved for benefits, applicants must have a neurological assessment done, coordinated by the board. But Da Silva says many First Nation members are being denied benefits. Since its inception, only 127 community members have received disability benefits. According to the board, 352 applicants did not have symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning therefore were denied benefits. Margaret Wanlin, chairperson of the board says some members' health may be compromised in ways that have nothing to do with mercury. Despite living with an array of symptoms, the payout is quite low. Compensation rates are decided by the board but have remained unchanged since the board was formed in 1986. As a means to address environmental and human health issues of Asubpeeschoseewagong, a working group was created in early 2013. A bulk of its members is government representatives, with few members from the community. But Da Silva says nothing is happening because the board isn't taking the issue seriously, yet she believes the problem of contamination can be fixed.
In an email statement, Aboriginal Affairs said they are working to address sites that pose the greatest risks to human health and the environment. The department has plans to clean up 38 priority sites in the province this year.