OTTAWA – The federal government has pledged to fund a treatment centre for an Ontario reserve plagued by mercury contamination.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott delivered the news to community leaders during a meeting Wednesday in Toronto that included Ontario Indigenous Relations Minister David Zimmer.
“We’ve been requesting for this for years and years,” said Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister.
“The government of Canada has stepped up to build this . . . mercury home and treatment centre for our people.”
The treatment centre is “dream come true” and once it is built, those affected by the serious impacts of mercury contamination will not have to travel to centres like Winnipeg or Kenora, Ont., to receive care, Fobister said.
“We were all happy and clapping our hands.”
Mercury contamination has plagued the English-Wabigoon River system in northwestern Ontario for half a century, since a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the river systems in the 1960s.
The symptoms of mercury poisoning include impaired peripheral vision, muscle weakness, impaired speech, hearing and cognitive function and numbness or stinging pain in the extremities and mouth.
Speaking outside the House of Commons later Wednesday, Philpott said the community has long requested a treatment facility to address health issues related to mercury exposure.
All Canadians need to know the real challenges that Grassy Narrows, along with the nearby Wabaseemoong (White Dog) First Nation, have faced for half a century, she added.
“This is what they need and should have and we are very happy to support them in it,” Philpott said. “I am going to be pushing my officials to get to work right away on the details.”
Earlier this month, the Ontario government reaffirmed in its fiscal plan that it will spend $85 million on cleaning up the site of a paper mill upstream from Grassy Narrows where mercury was first dumped.
Zimmer said Wednesday the provincial government is committed to continuing its work with Ottawa and Grassy Narrows to make the treatment facility a reality.
“We, along with the communities, are pleased with what the federal government is bringing to the table by way of a proposed treatment facility,” he said in a statement.
WATCH: ‘Canada has to wake up’ to Grassy Narrows mercury contamination crisis, leaders say
The community believes the price tag for the centre will be around $4.5 million, but a feasibility study needs to be completed to determine the cost, Fobister said.
A conceptual plan and design have already been developed.
The nearly 62-year-old chief spent time at a similar centre in Japan earlier this year, the world authority on the effects of mercury poisoning, also called Minamata disease.
“The design will be shaped like a canoe or a fish and it is going to have … eight residences and hopefully we will get the specialized equipment that … Minamata patients receive in Japan to ease the suffering and pain,” Fobister said.
“Hopefully it will be built ASAP and we are so happy about it.”