Ontario's government has had a report in hand about mercury contamination upstream from the Grassy Narrows First Nation for more than a year, but the premier says she didn't see it.
Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister David Zimmer said this week the report was received by the government in September 2016. But it apparently never made its way to Premier Kathleen Wynne.
"We are not sure exactly how that information hadn't made it to my desk, but we're asking that question," Wynne said Wednesday. "It is always a concern if we don't have the information that we need to make good decisions."
Zimmer said the report was received by the Ministry of the Environment, though he was unsure of whether it was also received by his ministry. He would "not categorize it as a communications breakdown," he said.
"Ministries do not keep the premier of the day in the dark," Zimmer said.
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.
Researchers have previously reported that more than 90 per cent of the people in Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nation show signs of mercury poisoning.
The Toronto Star reported last week on a 2016 report by an environmental consulting firm for the mill's current owner, Domtar, that showed the contamination continued to linger for decades and likely still does, despite repeated assurances from public officials over the years that there was no ongoing source of mercury in the river.
The Ontario government announced in June that it would spend $85-million to remediate the mercury contamination, months after a report commissioned by the Grassy Narrows community suggested there was ongoing contamination.
Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister said he believes Wynne.
"She's the only premier in Ontario that has committed to this clean-up although we have been demanding it for years," he said.
Fobister said, however, that the community has met with top bureaucrats from the province, adding it is disappointing they were not upfront about its knowledge of contamination dating back to 1990.
"It seemed like we had to scratch and claw to find out, you know, what is really going on," he said. "The bureaucracy works in mysterious ways. What they know doesn't necessarily mean their political masters know."
Judy DaSilva, the environmental co-ordinator for Grassy Narrows who says she suffers effects of mercury contamination, believes Wynne may not have read the report, but top advisers must have been aware.
"They should have told us," she said. "It is not all on her... We are used to people not treating us like humans, that we are not worth it."
The situation in the community has been grossly mishandled, DaSilva added, noting Ottawa has also turned a blind eye.
"Maybe now it is time for them to step in," she said.
Wynne also urged the federal government to work with Ontario on a compensation fund.
"I think this latest report points to the need for additional activity, apart from what we're doing in terms of cleaning up the river, but there needs to be the federal government, the First Nation, the provincial government (and) Health Canada sitting at the table to determine what the next steps should be," she said.
New Democrat Charlie Angus joined Fobister in pressing the federal Liberal government to build a mercury treatment centre for the area.
"Mr. Prime Minister, we cannot change the institutional negligence of the past, but we are morally bound to find ways to remediate and offer credible steps of reconciliation," Angus wrote to Justin Trudeau.
"The creation of a long-term treatment centre for the people of Grassy Narrows would be a first step on the path to cleaning up this environmental disaster."
A spokeswoman for the federal Indigenous Services minister said the government is "participating in exploratory discussions" with Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations and provincial partners to reform the Mercury Disability Board.