Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (formerly Grassy Narrows), one of Ontario's contaminated sites.
Recently, I wrote a story for VICE about the alarming number of First Nation communities in northwestern Ontario that are home to ‘high-priority’ contaminated sites. Most of these sites were contaminated with petroleum products or other chemicals called ‘BTEX’—known to be severely harmful to human health.
According to the Treasury Board’s inventory (which tracks contaminated areas in Canada), at the time of publishing there were 134 high-priority sites in the north. I reported that some of the contaminated sites are as large as 4,500 cubic meters or can even be measured in the tonnes. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is responsible for almost all of the sites reported.
However, within hours of VICE publishing my article, the number of contaminated sites listed in the inventory magically dropped to 56—before jumping back up to 109 two days later. Coincidence, says the Treasury Board. In an email statement, the Board stated that a reporting organization could modify the inventory at any time. It just so happened that Aboriginal Affairs updated their information soon after publication.
But at least one opposition MP questions that explanation. “This government has had a history of manipulating information in order to achieve an end, ” says NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic Jean Crowder. “In the absence of information you can make what ever policy decisions that you like.” The changing data didn’t surprise an industry watchdog either. “There’s a real reluctance on that part of all levels of government to even acknowledge the problem,“ says Jamie Kneen, communications coordinator with MiningWatch Canada. For the last 15 years, MiningWatch has pressured the federal government to look after its contaminated sites problem. “These liabilities aren’t going away if you aren’t going to clean them up,” says Kneen. But Kneen warns that the worst contamination could be yet to come.
For years, planning has been underway for a massive Chromite mining project in northern Ontario called The Ring of Fire. Early last year, Tony Clement was named the lead federal minister on the project. Clement is also the president of the Treasury Board. Valued at over $120 billion, The Ring of Fire project is expected to create thousands of jobs and could spark about 100 years of mining activity. At least nine First Nation communities have signed off on the deal that Clement says will be Canada’s “next oil sands.”
Stan Beardy is Regional Chief of the Chiefs of Ontario, a political organization that represents 133 First Nation communities in the province. He says high environmental standards must be in place before the Ring of Fire goes forward. And that means reliable data.
Across Canada, there are a total of 568 “high-priority” contaminated sites in First Nation communities. Aboriginal Affairs is responsible for a large number of these sites. In its plans and priorities report for this year, the Department warned they might not be able to clean up and manage the sites in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, the Ring of Fire is slowly moving forward. Recently, an agreement was signed between First Nation communities and the Ontario government. Which means First Nation communities already living near existing sites may soon face new contaminated sites—with no idea when they'll be taken care of.