Evidence of meeting #155 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was grassy.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Keith Conn  Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Susan Humphrey  Associate Regional Director General, Strategic Policy Branch, Ontario Region, Department of the Environment
Greg Carreau  Director, Water and Air Quality Bureau, Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, Department of Health
Tom Wong  Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Jennifer Mercer  Director, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Grant Wedge  Assistant Deputy Minister, Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, Government of Ontario
Rudy Turtle  Grassy Narrows First Nation
Frank Miklas  Director, Northern Region, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, Government of Ontario
David Sone  Advisor, Grassy Narrows First Nation

8:45 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Good morning, everyone. Thank you for tuning in and for arriving. We're at the indigenous and northern affairs standing committee of Parliament. We are so pleased to have you here on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people.

All Canadians are in a process of truth and reconciliation. Canada has a long history of colonization and policies that have oppressed a particular group of people who, historically, were extremely generous and helpful to settlers, and still are. We say this not only as a formality but also as an opportunity to reflect on our history, whether we come from here in Ottawa with the Algonquin people, or, like me, from the homeland of the Métis on Treaty No. 1 territory. Each and every Canadian has a role in this story, and I ask everyone to reflect on that.

Today, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are conducting a study on the Grassy Narrows First Nation and the issue of the mercury that was leaching into the Wabigoon River system. This is something that happened decades ago, and we know that people suffered because of that industrial development.

Thank you for coming.

We have before us the Department of Indigenous Services, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health. The presenters from each department will have 10 minutes, and after that we'll go into a series of questions.

On the order paper, I have us opening with the Department of Indigenous Services.

Keith Conn and Tom Wong, however you want to split it, when you're ready, please begin.

8:45 a.m.

Keith Conn Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Good morning. Thank you for inviting us to appear before the committee to discuss the critical issue of mercury contamination, which is continuing to affect the community of Grassy Narrows.

Before I continue, I'd like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin people.

To start, I'll give a brief history of mercury contamination that has impacted the community of Asubpeeschoseewagong, also known as Grassy Narrows. In 1970, it was discovered that there was a high level of mercury in the English-Wabigoon river system. The contamination was traced to an area pulp and paper mill, found to have been dumping effluent containing high levels of mercury into the water system for a number of years.

The communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nation, known as Whitedog, were deeply impacted, with much of the population of both communities having varying degrees of mercury exposure.

In 1986, two pulp and paper mill companies, together with the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario, paid a total of $16.67 million, in a one-time compensation payment to the two communities.

The same year, the provincial and federal governments established a Mercury Disability Board to oversee the administration of a trust fund from which benefits are paid to those showing symptoms of mercury poisoning. Indigenous Services Canada continues to recognize the importance of the ongoing work the Mercury Disability Board does for the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nation.

The branch I oversee—the first nations and Inuit health branch—which fell within the purview of Health Canada prior to the announcement of the creation of Indigenous Services Canada, has had historical involvement in evaluation of the human health impacts of mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system, and has been providing primary care and public health services to the community for decades. Primary health care, treatment and community-based services, including mental wellness programming and medical transportation, are currently provided to Grassy Narrows through nurses.

Since 1970, our department has been investigating and supporting assessments of the impacts of mercury contamination on the residents of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, which has included hair and blood sampling of community members, and monitoring and funding of environmental studies, as requested by the community.

Indigenous Services Canada has recently been working closely with Dr. Donna Mergler, a prominent environmental health researcher selected by the community of Grassy Narrows and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, to support the investigation of the long-term health impacts of historic mercury exposure.

We also provided funding in 2018-19 for an expert panel to review medical and scientific evidence that will inform the Mercury Disability Board. The work is well under way, and expected to conclude, with recommendations, by the end of 2019-20.

While the legacy of mercury poisoning impacts all the families in Grassy Narrows, the needs and aspirations of the community are not uniform. We need to support the whole community—children, youth, adults and the elderly population. We acknowledge that the community has been directly and indirectly impacted by mercury poisoning. Regardless of the underlying causes, we are working, and will continue to work with Grassy Narrows' leadership and first nations' partners to support improvements to the health and well-being of all community members.

This is why, on November 29, 2017, in a meeting with Grassy Narrows First Nation, the Governments of Ontario and Canada committed to fund the design, construction and operation of a mercury treatment centre in Grassy Narrows. We continue to work closely with Grassy Narrows and remain steadfast in our commitments to build a health facility that supports the unique needs of the community.

Early in 2018, funding was provided to the community to complete a feasibility study. Departmental officials have been working and meeting with Grassy Narrows' technical advisers to advance the project. The province has recently become engaged in this discussion and has committed to supply services that fall within its responsibility, such as physicians, specialists and allied health professionals.

It's imperative that Canada, Ontario and Grassy Narrows' leadership work together to ensure that the community receives the supports required.

As you are aware, the Minister of Indigenous Services recently met with Grassy Narrows' leadership to discuss a memorandum of agreement on an approach that addresses the unique health needs of the community members of Grassy Narrows First Nation.

This agreement has not yet been signed. “Yet” is the key word. As the minister commented earlier this week before this committee, this is part of the negotiations. The government is committed to reaching an agreement that will meet the community needs. We will continue working with Chief Turtle and his council until we agree on a solution that meets the health needs of Grassy Narrows now and in the longer term.

In closing, Madam Chair, by collaborating with the community in Ontario on this innovative project, Indigenous Services Canada will continue to demonstrate its firm commitment to advancing reconciliation and improving the socio-economic and health outcomes of indigenous peoples.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

8:50 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Now we move to Susan Humphrey from the Department of the Environment.

8:50 a.m.

Susan Humphrey Associate Regional Director General, Strategic Policy Branch, Ontario Region, Department of the Environment

Good morning Madam Chair and committee members.

I want to start by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people. My name is Susan Humphrey. I am the associate regional director general in Ontario region for Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Thank you for the invitation to appear before you today to discuss Environment and Climate Change Canada's role with respect to mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system. Protecting Canada's freshwater resources is a key priority for the Government of Canada. Responsibility for protection of freshwater quality in Canada is divided between the federal and provincial levels of government. In the case of mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system, the Government of Ontario has the lead on working with the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong first nations communities to clean up the problem.

This is a long-standing problem, with mercury contamination originating from pulp mill operations in the 1960s and the 1970s. Cleaning up mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system is an extremely challenging problem, with more than a 100 kilometres of river between the mill site and the first nation communities.

In 2017, the Government of Ontario announced $85 million towards cleaning up the contamination and it renewed its commitment to planning and implementing clean-up measures in cooperation with the first nation communities. Environment and Climate Change Canada is engaged in the remediation efforts led by the Government of Ontario. Specifically, the department is providing scientific and technical advice to the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks in relation to the remediation of aquatic contaminated sites and contaminated sediment remediation technologies.

Environment and Climate Change Canada officials will continue to contribute to the efforts that the federal government is making to provide relevant support to the Government of Ontario and the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong first nation communities as they work to resolve this serious issue.

Thank you.

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

Our last presenter is Greg Carreau from the Department of Health.

8:55 a.m.

Greg Carreau Director, Water and Air Quality Bureau, Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, Department of Health

Thank you, Madam Chair and members of the committee.

Good morning. My name is Greg Carreau and I'm the director of the water and air quality bureau at Health Canada.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we are meeting today is on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin nation.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss Health Canada's role in protecting Canadians from environmental risks to health. I will speak to the department's activities and expertise related to mercury and contaminated sites, first in general, and then as it relates to Grassy Narrows. Health Canada works closely with Environment and Climate Change Canada to protect the health of Canadians from environmental contaminants such as mercury through our chemicals management plan. This work is accomplished under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, which provides the authority for the federal government to take action to address harmful chemicals.

Mercury poses a host of human health risks. The health risks of mercury depend on its chemical form, route of exposure and the level of exposure. Mercury in its organic form, methylmercury, bioaccumulates up the food chain—for example, in fish—and is absorbed through the digestive tract and distributed throughout the body. It readily enters the brain, where it may remain for long periods of time. In pregnant women, it can cross the placenta and into the fetus.

A child's developing nervous system is particularly sensitive to mercury. Effects can include a decrease in IQ, delays in walking and talking, blindness and seizures. In adults, extreme exposure can lead to personality changes, changes in vision, deafness, loss of muscle coordination and sensation, intellectual impairment and even death. Cardiovascular, renal and carcinogenic effects have also been observed.

The federal government has taken action to reduce levels of mercury and risks to health. A wide range of regulatory and non-regulatory initiatives have effectively reduced mercury emissions in Canada. Since the 1970s, domestic sources of mercury emissions have been reduced by approximately 90%. Global efforts are also important, and Canada ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury in 2017, a global treaty to reduce mercury emissions and exposures.

Today, methylmercury exposure in Canadians is often linked to eating fish. Health Canada establishes standards for the amount of mercury permitted in retail fish. To further reduce exposure, Health Canada provides advice to Canadians on the consumption of certain types of fish known to contain higher levels of mercury.

Health Canada has undertaken research to evaluate the levels of mercury in Canadians. The Canadian health measures survey collects information from Canadians about their health and includes measurements of chemicals in blood and urine. Results found that over 99% of Canadians sampled had levels of mercury below the established methylmercury blood guidance levels. When levels of methylmercury in blood are below the guidance value, no negative health effects are expected.

Regarding the health risks of contaminated sites, Health Canada participates in the federal contaminated sites action plan. Health Canada's role is to provide expert advice, guidance, training and tools on the assessment and mitigation of health risks. The historical source of the mercury contamination that impacts Grassy Narrows First Nation has not been part of the federal contaminated sites action plan.

Health Canada has had historical involvement in evaluating the human health impacts of mercury contamination in the river system of the English and Wabigoon rivers. Beginning in the 1970s, Health Canada has been investigating the impacts of mercury on the residents of the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog communities. This work was carried out by Health Canada's first nations and Inuit health branch, which was transferred to Indigenous Services Canada in 2017. My colleague from Indigenous Services Canada described these activities earlier.

The residents of Grassy Narrows First Nation have been exposed to elevated levels of mercury resulting from past industrial practices. Health Canada is committed to continuing to work with partners to address the health risk posed by mercury, including our scientific expertise and any future collaborative action with Grassy Narrows First Nation.

I wish to thank the committee for the opportunity to appear today.

9 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

I'm going to encourage you all, if you're not fluent, to put in your earpiece.

Questioning will open with MP Yves Robillard.

9 a.m.

Liberal

Yves Robillard Liberal Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Thank you for your testimony.

My first question goes to Mr. Wong.

In 2017, a team of researchers discovered that the old plant was still leaking mercury into the river.

Can you tell us whether that is still the case today and, if so, can you describe for us in detail the efforts that are being made to remedy the situation?

9 a.m.

Dr. Tom Wong Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Thank you very much for the question.

My expertise is in the domain of medicine and public health. I will actually turn to my colleague, Susan Humphrey, from ECCC, to comment on the environmental sources of the mercury contamination. As Susan had talked about, there is a strong interest among the entire Canadian community to identify this source and for the Government of Ontario to address the issue.

Susan.

9 a.m.

Associate Regional Director General, Strategic Policy Branch, Ontario Region, Department of the Environment

Susan Humphrey

Thank you very much.

Environment and Climate Change Canada is involved in working with the Province of Ontario in providing advice related to the remediation of contaminated sediment in the English and Wabigoon river system. If the question is about the source—potentially related to the operations at the mill or to the former chlor-alkali plant—I'm afraid I'm not able to answer that question.

Thank you.

9 a.m.

Liberal

Yves Robillard Liberal Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

I'm coming back with another question on that.

My next question goes to Ms. Humphrey and Mr. Conn.

The economic life of the Grassy Narrows region has been greatly affected by the contamination in the river, according to Jamie Benidickson. In his words, the fishing industry, a major source of the residents' food and regular income, has been destroyed.

Can you describe for us the economic status of the Grassy Narrows region and the recent trends that have been observed there?

9 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

I'll start.

From what I understand, you're right: It's had a detrimental impact on the economy, sustenance, hunting and gathering. From anecdotal information that has been shared, I understand that community members had to go further away from their traditional territory to hunt and gather and to fish. That's what I know, but we could probably come back to the committee with more detailed information on the socio-economic impacts of the mercury contamination.

9 a.m.

Associate Regional Director General, Strategic Policy Branch, Ontario Region, Department of the Environment

Susan Humphrey

Environment and Climate Change Canada's role in this particular issue is to provide technical and scientific advice to the Government of Ontario related to remediation technologies and sediment quality assessment in the river. I'm afraid I cannot comment on the socio-economic impacts on the communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nation.

9 a.m.

Liberal

Yves Robillard Liberal Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Conn, it seems to me that a number of factors have to be considered in order to provide assistance to the Grassy Narrows First Nation: decontaminating the lake, the current contamination from the abandoned plant, building the health care infrastructure, and the health care services themselves.

First, can you tell us which level of government is responsible for each of those issues and then talk to us about the relationship you have with the provincial government?

9:05 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

When we look at the vision and aspirations of the community, we have multiple levels of service that need to be realized. As I mentioned earlier, we do provide primary health care and public health services. The vision of the community is to provide specialized medical treatment to patients and community members suffering from mercury exposure. That will demand the co-operation and collaboration of the Government of Ontario with respect to their jurisdiction around specialized services. This includes physician services and allied health services. They are at the table. They will be part of the discussions to find the level of service required by the community.

Within the building facilities, there are actually two. One is the proposed expanded health facility. The second piece is the facility for mercury contamination treatment services as well as assisted living. Realization of those two facilities for the community will also demand, as I said, the collaboration and support of the provincial government in its jurisdictional domain.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

Yves Robillard Liberal Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

We know that negotiations are underway between the department and the Grassy Narrows First Nation on the construction of a health care centre. Once agreement is reached, how much time will we have to wait before the construction of the health care centre begins?

9:05 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

Thank you for the question.

We're very close. Chief Turtle can speak to this as well.

The feasibility study has been completed. The design vision is there. They are just finalizing the financial agreements and arrangements to begin construction, which will probably demand some clearing and shrubbing to access the chosen site.

We could, perhaps, start with a shovel in the ground in late summer—in my humble estimation—but we need to secure the agreement first, and we're close to that. It's under negotiation as we speak.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

Yves Robillard Liberal Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Thank you.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

That concludes our time.

We move to MP Cathy McLeod.

June 6th, 2019 / 9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

This certainly is a very important issue that, quite frankly, has gone on for far too many years. I remember having those little mercury thermometers as a young child, and the warnings about if your thermometer broke. Those were little beads. We're talking about barrels and barrels leaking into the river, so it's absolutely a significant concern.

Mr. Carreau, are children in Grassy Narrows still being born with levels of mercury that are in excess of the minimum standard or threshold that you talked about?

9:05 a.m.

Director, Water and Air Quality Bureau, Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, Department of Health

Greg Carreau

Perhaps my colleague, Dr. Wong, would be best placed to speak to that question.

9:05 a.m.

Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Dr. Tom Wong

There are, to this day, still children who are born with impacts of the mercury poisoning of the past. We have observed a decreasing trend of that over the course of the last 40 or 50 years. However, it is still occurring at this point and is related to a mother's being exposed to mercury during pregnancy.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

That threshold is one that will cause damage, as we heard from Mr. Carreau earlier.

9:05 a.m.

Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Dr. Tom Wong

That is correct. However, that's been decreasing over time.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

This brings me to Jordan's principle and the comments that Mr. Conn was making. Jordan's principle is that we don't argue about how we're going to fund it when there are jurisdictional issues. We get it done, and then we have the argument with the provinces later.

From what I'm hearing, it sounds as though you're not applying Jordan's principle to the discussions to say that we go ahead. We should commit to what's needed and then talk with the provinces and figure it out.

Can you explain why you're not applying Jordan's principle to this particular issue because we don't have things worked out with the province, etc.?