Grassy Narrows – On the night before Christmas Grassy Narrows First Nation received notice that Ontario is rejecting the community’s request for an Individual Environmental Assessment of the mercury impacts from the controversial final plan for clearcut logging on their homeland. Grassy Narrows is concerned that the planned clearcut logging will harm the health of their families by raising mercury poison levels in local fish – a traditional staple.
Ontario’s logging plan makes no mention of mercury, and contains no special measures to account for the fact that Grassy Narrows’ homeland is the site of Canada’s most infamous case of mercury poisoning arising from 9,000 kg of mercury that was dumped into their river by a paper mill upstream in the 1960’s. Scientific studies indicate that clearcut logging in the boreal forest can raise mercury in fish to unsafe levels.
“Ontario has ignored our voices and is planning to force more devastating clearcuts on our people without even applying their own Individual Environmental Assessment process,” said Joseph Fobister, a Grassy Narrows land-user and businessman. “It makes me sad that our people will become even sicker if the government allows the logging industry to poison the fish that we eat.”
“I am disheartened by this hurtful decision,” said Chief Roger Fobister Sr. of Grassy Narrows. “It seems that our health and our culture do not matter to the government as they attempt to force their clearcut plans on us. The only honourable way forward here is to work together to gain our agreement before our land and water are used.”
Grassy Narrows’ request was an important test of Ontario’s environmental laws. People with concerns can request an Individual Environmental Assessment (IEA) of a logging plan if they believe that environmental and human health are not being protected. However, such requests are rarely, if ever, granted since the current regulatory regime was established in 1994. The Timber Class Environmental Assessment for all logging which was approved in 1994 did not consider the mercury impacts from logging as they were not known until 1997.
“This is a glaring failure to use our environmental laws to ensure that the health of people and our environment are safe from the harmful impacts of industrial clearcut logging,” explained Amber Ellis, Executive Director of Earthroots, which supported Grassy Narrows in their request. “It is hard to imagine a situation that requires an Individual Environmental Assessment more than the mercury issue in Grassy Narrows. What use is an Individual Environmental Assessment process when every request is rejected?”
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) writes that “[t]he potential for forest management activities to result in mobilization of terrestrial mercury into aquatic systems is well documented and a serious concern.” MNRF also admits that “[T]here are not mitigation measures specific to mercury in the [logging rules],” and “[t]here are no claims that the [logging rules] direction and application of the [logging rules] will mitigate or eliminate Hg mobilization.”
And yet the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change has given the green light to the MNRF to authorize clearcut logging in one of the most mercury impacted parts of the planet, against the loud objections of Grassy Narrows where many families already suffer the debilitating symptoms of mercury poisoning.
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Kathleen Wynne visited Grassy Narrows in the summer of 2012 as Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and promised to rebuild Ontario’s relationship with Grassy Narrows. Instead, on December 23rd, 2013 the Wynne government approved unilateral plans for another decade of clearcut logging in Grassy Narrows Territory against the will of the community and without consent. Grassy Narrows’ request for an Individual Environmental Assessment provided an opportunity for the Wynne Government to use their secure majority to ensure that logging does not deepen the mercury problem in Grassy Narrows.
The Whiskey Jack Forest Management Plan includes dozens of large clearcuts on Grassy Narrows Territory, one alone nearly the size of pre-amalgamation Toronto (79 sq km vs. 97 sq km). This logging will further erode the Aboriginal and Treaty Rights of Grassy Narrows which depends on the forest to sustain their families and to practice their culture through fishing, hunting, trapping, medicine harvesting, ceremony and healing for all generations.
The unilateral plan makes exclusive use of clearcut logging, a practice which has been scientifically reported to raise mercury levels in fish to dangerous levels. The most extensive study found that 100% of walleye and pike in studied clearcut boreal lakes in Quebec had mercury levels above the World Health Organization limit for safe human consumption, compared to only 18% in unlogged lakes (Gracia and Carignan 2005).
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled on July 11th, 2014 that Ontario must respect Grassy Narrows’ Treaty rights when authorizing logging on their land, and has a duty to protect a meaningful ability for Grassy Narrows people to practice their right to fish and hunt.
The new logging plan was scheduled to take effect on April 1st, 2014 but then MNRF Minister Orazietti, promised that no logging would occur within 60km of Grassy Narrows until April 1st, 2015.
Ontario’s rejection of Grassy Narrows’ request for Individual Environmental Assessment gives the green light for clearcut logging to proceed over the long-standing objections of the people of Grassy Narrows.
“There is clear indication that forest harvesting leads to increases in Hgtot and MeHg loading, as well as increased bioaccumulation in downstream aquatic biota.” (Bishop et al. 2009 review paper)
“The potential for forest management activities to result in mobilization of terrestrial mercury into aquatic systems is well documented and a serious concern.” (MNRF response to IEA request p.19 ph3)
“There are no claims that the [logging rules] direction and application of the [logging rules] will mitigate or eliminate Hg mobilization.” (MNRF response to IEA request p.10 ph3)
“Because there are no studies which identify or evaluate mitigation measures to minimize mercury mobilization following disturbance there are not mitigation measures specific to mercury in the [logging rules].” (MNRF response to IEA request p.19 last ph)
“MNR has made no further commitments in the [logging plan] to address issues raised by the requesters.” (MNRF response to EA request p.7)
The logging rules to deal with mercury impacts have “a high degree of uncertainty” and have been identified as a “high priority for testing through an effectiveness monitoring program.” (MNRF Guide for Conserving Biodiversity at the Stand and Site Scale)
A 2011 MNRF review of the effectiveness monitoring program found that “it was agreed that current work is not sufficient to address Aquatic Ecosystem Processes uncertainties” including mercury impacts.
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