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Feds fund Mercury Care Home to treat Ontario First Nations poisoned over decades

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New federal funding of $88.4 million for a First Nations care home will offer specialized treatment for at least 22 northwestern Ontario residents suffering from the effects of methylmercury contamination discovered in 1970 in the English-Wabigoon river system.

Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (ANA) — often referred to as Grassy Narrows First Nation — and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations (WIN) virtually signed a framework agreement for the Mercury Care Home in April 2020, at which time the federal government committed to $19.5 million for the detailed design and construction of a care facility slated to open in 2023.

Last week, Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services, announced an additional $68.9 million to fund the operations, maintenance and specialized service delivery of the care facility that will treat some of the most seriously ill patients suffering from mercury poisoning.

Outpatient services will also be available for those residents battling neurological problems ranging from numbness in fingers and toes, to seizures, cognitive delays, birth defects and cancer.

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“The ongoing impacts of mercury poisoning on our people and community are immense, but through the mercury wellness centre and a more comprehensive health care system, we are hopeful that our members will begin to see better health outcomes,” announced Chief Waylon Scott of Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, in a statement.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the chemical plant at the Reed Paper mill in Dryden, Ontario, upstream of Grassy Narrows, dumped some 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the nearby river, contaminating fish that were a staple of most residents’ diets.

As recently as late March, First Nation residents in the region staged a rally to call for individual financial compensation over the impact of widespread mercury poisoning reported to have affected some 90% of area residents. Previously, the federal and provincial governments, together with two pulp and paper mill companies (Reed Limited and Great Lakes Forest Products Ltd.), paid a total of $16.67 million in a one-time compensation payment to WIN and ANA First Nations.

The governments established the Mercury Disability Board in 1986 to oversee the administration of a trust fund for benefits that are paid to claimants showing symptoms of past mercury poisoning.

Last week, while visiting the affected First Nations, Minister Miller also announced the approval of federal funding for two priority water and wastewater projects in the community. Indigenous Services Canada will be providing an additional $2.4 million for upgrades to the First Nations’ water treatment and water distribution systems that, once complete, will support the lifting of their long-term drinking water advisory.

Indigenous Services Canada is also providing an additional $391,936 to support emergency repairs to the First Nations’ wastewater treatment plant and lift station.

In 2017, the Ontario government announced $85 million in funding to remediate the mercury contamination in the river.

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