Indigenous communities in Ontario’s north fear another round of mercury poisoning after the provincial government eliminated environmental assessments for commercial clear-cutting on Crown forest land.
The change was made on Canada Day, a few hours after Premier Doug Ford’s office posted a news release that listed more than a dozen regulatory and legislative changes within 11 ministries.
The government says it is “ending duplication” by removing logging activities from the Environmental Assessment Act, which falls under the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. Now, logging plans and practices will only be answerable to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and its Crown Forest Sustainability Act.
The region affected includes a huge swath of central and Northern Ontario forests, between Manitoba and Quebec, according to the province.
“If you were to do a keyword search in the (crown forest act) the words ‘human’ and ‘health’ will not show up,” said Joseph Castrilli, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.
“Basically, the (act) deals with trees, deals with how to make them commercially available, deals with wildlife, but it is not a statute about how to protect human health,” Castrilli said.
The Environmental Assessment Act, passed by the Bill Davis Progressive Conservative government in the 1970s, looks at the environment from a broad perspective, including the impact on human health, society and culture, he said. The environment ministry said the elimination is part of the government’s “environmental assessment modernization efforts.”
Studies have shown that clear-cut logging, which is the practice in the crown Boreal forest lands that surround the Grassy Narrows traditional territory, releases mercury that had previously settled in the soil after blowing north, often from industries in the United States.
“If you clear-cut an area with watershed, you are going to end up with mercury in the water system,” Castrilli said. “The only issue is how quickly and how much.”
With logging now excluded from the Environmental Assessment Act, Grassy Narrows First Nation leaders like Joseph Fobister fear the community will take yet another hit from mercury poisoning.
“We are not happy about this,” said Fobister, a member of the land protection team that blocks logging on Grassy Narrows territory in the Whiskey Jack Forest.
“We’ve suffered from the environmental contamination of mercury already,” Fobister said. “We don’t need any more. Ninety per cent of our people are suffering from mercury poisoning. This is just not a good decision.”
Decades of mercury poisoning among Grassy Narrows residents illustrate the connection between industry, the environment and human health.
Between 1962 and 1970, a paper plant in Dryden, Ont., dumped 10 tonnes of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, in the Wabigoon River, upstream from Grassy Narrows. The mercury contaminated the fish and poisoned the people who ate the fish. They developed tremors, loss of muscle co-ordination, slurred speech and tunnel vision.
In recent years, Toronto Star investigations and scientists have shown that fish near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province; that there is mercury-contaminated soil and river sediment at or near the site of the old mill; and 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.
Forestry companies’ logging plans are approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and renewed every 10 years as part of a management plan. The current plan for the Whiskey Jack Forest, home to Grassy Narrows, ends in 2022.
The Environmental Assessment Act previously allowed for hearings into those logging plans if there were concerns about health issues or infringement of Indigenous rights, Castrilli said.
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“Every population that lives, works or plays in the forest is at risk,” he said.
“And frankly, so is anybody who fishes in those same water systems, whether they are Aboriginal or not.”