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

9:20 a.m.

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

Keith Conn

No. In my experience, the model has not been used before to secure 30 years of funding in a trust fund. All of our other programs and services and capital infrastructure works demand that there be ongoing funding on a year-to-year basis for the community. Those are normalized agreements for operational maintenance for the future.

We have these existing experiences and practices that would bode well with the Grassy Narrows project.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

I would like to pass the rest of my time over to the chair.

Thank you so much.

Dr. Wong, if you would like to—

9:25 a.m.

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

Dr. Tom Wong

Perhaps I'll make an additional comment.

I think Canada has never been so close from a medical standpoint to actually supporting the communities. It is a moral obligation to support the communities to have a medical facility to help support disabled individuals who are having problems feeding themselves, walking, learning, etc.

For us, this is as close to supporting the communities as we have ever got to from a medical standpoint.

Thanks.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Why has it taken so long to get here? This is what I don't understand. This is not new. Why have previous governments failed? Has it just been a lack of political will?

9:25 a.m.

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

Dr. Tom Wong

I won't comment on that question.

In my transition from the Public Health Agency of Canada to the first nations and Inuit health branch and in the short time I've been here, I've seen significant accomplishments by all of the staff in trying to work with the communities, trying to actually support the communities, to get to this day. I can't comment on the remote past.

Thank you.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Thank you.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

I would like to ask a question about the economic situation in the area. Back in the seventies many indigenous people were employed in tourism by the fishing lodges. The guides had basically no choice but to eat contaminated fish daily at that time, and then, of course, that's problematic for their health and perhaps for their children.

Are there still fishing lodges that are using those waters contaminated with mercury?

9:25 a.m.

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

Keith Conn

Madam Chair, I think we would have to come back to the committee on that specific question. I'm not in the economics business, but I do have colleagues who are and whom we can consult on the level of activity around tourism and fishing lodges.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Perhaps you could indicate how many people are guides. In the seventies when I had an opportunity to work in the area, we saw many dozens of people who were fishing guides, and it put them into a direct workplace hazard really. The contamination levels were low for the tourists, but the levels accumulated in the local residents, of course.

I look forward to your information.

We move on to MP Arnold Viersen.

9:25 a.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

I'll let Mr. Waugh go first.

9:25 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

Thank you.

Thank you to all of you for coming here today.

Dr. Wong, you said there was still poisoning going on in the community.

Mr. Carreau, in your remarks, you noted that mercury poses a host of human health risks, including for the brain and pregnant women. It can cross the placenta into the fetus.

Health Canada refused to reveal the names of 150 residents who were identified at birth. The umbilical cord blood of babies was tested for 22 years, from 1970 to 1992, and 357 infants on reserve had testing data that sat somewhere. Some of it was, they said, in bank boxes in Thunder Bay and Ottawa. The information was slow and at times never even passed on.

If we're still having issues today, has this improved situation improved at Health Canada and your departments?

9:25 a.m.

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

Dr. Tom Wong

Perhaps I'll ask Jennifer Mercer, the director of the program, to speak to that.

What you described was something in the past. However, the department has spent a lot of time working with ethicists at the research ethics board and the community and has poured in additional resources in order to hand search all of the historical documents from the past 40 years and provide those to the communities in boxes, literally.

I'll turn to Jennifer Mercer for the details.

Thanks.

9:30 a.m.

Jennifer Mercer Director, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

You're right. There's over 50 years of historical data in approximately 100 banker boxes. This data is owned by the individuals who were tested. This personal medical information has been released to the individuals who were tested. If you have an individual who, for example, was born to a mother whose cord blood was tested at the time of birth, the cord blood data was released to the mother.

Throughout the past 50 years, we've had ongoing requests from community members to get access to their personal medical information. I've been in the position for about two years, and I've had 40 or 50 individuals who have asked for their personal medical information. That information has been released upon request to the individual, or, depending on how they sign the consent, to the person with whom they want to share the information, such as a researcher or a physician. It is an individual's personal medical information.

That said, since, I think, the mid-1970s, upon request by researchers who had the support of the community, we have been releasing this data, and this data has been going to the researchers in a de-identifiable format. That means it doesn't have a date of birth or a name. You cannot identify who the individual is, but we have been releasing that data when requested.

We need to make sure that we protect individuals' personal medical information, and we have to respect the Privacy Act. If we released data without the appropriate measures in place, we'd be not in keeping with the Privacy Act.

9:30 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

Thank you. I'll switch over to Mr. Viersen.

9:30 a.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Mr. Conn, in the minister's testimony the other day, he said that if the deal had been done last week, the shovels would be in the ground now. You said today that we would be building in August. Is there daylight in-between that, or does “now” mean this summer?

9:30 a.m.

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

Keith Conn

I'd better follow suit with the minister, I suppose. Yes, now, this summer; I'm just humbly estimating. It takes time to secure contractors, and the community needs to get organized around that, and they are primed. That was just my humble estimation of summer. It's now June, so July, August....

9:30 a.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

So, what you're saying is that we don't have the contractors lined up.

9:30 a.m.

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

Keith Conn

Not at this point, but I think there's a state of readiness, I have to say.

9:30 a.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Okay.

Ms. Humphrey, you used the word “potential” for the contamination. Why did you use the word “potential”?

9:30 a.m.

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

Susan Humphrey

I mentioned earlier that the responsibility for freshwater quality and for protecting freshwater quality in Canada is divided between the two levels of government—federal and provincial.

Environment and Climate Change Canada is co-leading sediment remediation projects in areas of federal jurisdiction; in the case of Ontario, in the Canadian Great Lakes and the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes. Our involvement in the English-Wabigoon river system assessment of contamination and proposals for remediating that sediment is one of providing technical and scientific advice to the Province of Ontario, because the lands that are contaminated in the river are actually under provincial Crown jurisdiction. The information that has come to us comes in various sources from the Province of Ontario, from the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. We've received various documents on sediment quality. We've been commenting on sediment quality in the river—the assessment of the quality and the potential for the different remedial options to work. We have not commented on, or received documents related to, contamination at the mill property, and I was assuming that was what the earlier question was on. That was what the response was about.

9:30 a.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

My question is this. If we remediate the mill sites, are we certain that we're going to remove the source of this mercury by taking this remediation action?

9:35 a.m.

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

Susan Humphrey

The information that Environment and Climate Change Canada has, and from our experience in leading sediment remediation projects elsewhere in the province, is that dealing with a source, if it's a current source, is always a first step. We need to ensure that we're dealing with the source and, at the same time, remediating the legacy issue, meaning any deposits that have actually accumulated in the English-Wabigoon river system, whether in the rivers proper or in the lakes as well.

9:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

The questioning now moves to MP Gordie Hogg.

9:35 a.m.

Liberal

Gordie Hogg Liberal South Surrey—White Rock, BC

As a naive person sitting on this committee for the first time, I've been listening to the testimony that there's the emergent need to do something and, at the same time, there's the trust fund issue that is compromising or setting that back.

I don't understand why those two issues are mutually exclusive. I've dealt with a number of issues in the province I come from, British Columbia, where we do put trust funds in place; we do start operationally. I don't understand why you can't start the building with an agreement and then have an agreement that we're going to deal with the trust fund issues afterwards. There seems to be a certain emergent need with respect to the building, and the trust fund—if I'm correctly interpreting what I'm hearing—is something that is delaying that or not making it possible at this point.

I don't understand why there can't be some discussion and negotiation to make those things happen in parallel. I don't see them as mutually exclusive; I've seen organizations, models and governments that have done that. I'm wondering whether that's been explored and there's some possibility of actually recognizing, as you do, the emergent need of this. Somehow it doesn't seem that we should be risking the challenge that comes with delaying any of that further, yet we can't seem to accomplish both of those things at one time.

June 6th, 2019 / 9:35 a.m.

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

Keith Conn

Yes, they may not be mutually exclusive. There's a strong desire to get the process moving and the shovel in the ground, so perhaps that could be a possible scenario of looking at the longer term, 30 years out, in terms of some kind of trust mechanism. Certainly agreements that we normally sign for quick and expeditious execution projects are through an agreement—a contribution agreement, for example—so we can get that moving quickly. As we speak, there's a finalization on a proposed approach around that.

We'll leave it to the minister and Chief Turtle to look at a vision forward around that concept or that thought.