Grassy Narrows members remain concerned about the impact of forestry on their land. 

"For decades logging hurt our way of life, and made our mercury problem worse," said First Nation member Joseph Fobister in an email last week.

Fobister was commenting on the release of Ontario's new forestry strategy Thursday. The community has taken the fight against logging all the way to the Supreme Court, and they set up a permanent blockade in 2002 to stop harvesting in their traditional lands.

Yesterday, all eight Northern NDP MPPs released a letter to Doug Ford calling on him to respond to the concerns of First Nations who have contacted him after he failed to respect treaty rights and rushed changes in Bill 197 that impacts treaty territories without consulting them.

“The government has a legal duty to consult First Nations on any decisions or actions that impact treaty territory,” said Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa in a media release.

The Opposition members said the changes would have grave effect on the ability of communities to influence forest management planning, project assessments and the environmental assessment process on their traditional territories and Treaty lands.

“Doug Ford failed to respect the constitutional right of Indigenous communities to be consulted when he passed laws affecting First Nations without consultations,” Mamakwa continued. 

Community members in Grassy Narrows are still dealing with the legacy of mercury contamination, which is related to the bleaching of paper at the Dryden mill upstream between 1962 and 1970, when an estimated nine to 10 tonnes of mercury were released into the water.

Advocates say clearcutting in the area has only added to the contamination issue, as the runoff from areas that have been clearcut add naturally-occurring mercury from the soil into neighbouring waterways.

"Now Ontario is trying to grease the wheels for industry and further weaken oversight that was supposed to keep the forests that we rely on healthy. This is a big step backwards for people who care about the forest, the animals and the water. We will remain vigilant and we will protect our forests," Fobister added in his email Thursday, in response to the province's new forestry strategy.

The Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek Community Health Assessment Report from December 2018 revealed that Grassy Narrows adults reported higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, when compared to other First Nation adults. The report also found that community members under the age of 19 had higher rates of mercury-related problems compared to other First Nation communities.

Further, the report found that Grassy Narrows youth were twice as likely to not thrive and to have emotional or behavioural issues, and three times as likely to have at least one condition that may impact school performance – such as speech or language difficulties and learning disabilities. Other conditions include attention deficit disorder, allergies, asthma, eczema, anxiety, depression, anemia, visual problems, and ear infections.

In their research, Japanese doctors have estimated that more than 90 per cent of the First Nation members at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseeomoong show signs of mercury poisoning. Health Canada stopped the regular monitoring of mercury levels in the Grassy Narrows community in 1999. 

Elder Judy Da Silva said in 2018 she was one of about 300 claimants from a total population of about 4,000 members of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations, who were eligible for compensation from the Mercury Disability Board. Following a provincial review, Da Silva expected her payments to jump from about $250 a month to about $500, which she appreciated. Still, she emphasized it would still be difficult to make ends meet.

In 2017, Ontario pledged $85 million towards the clean up of the Wabigoon River and English River systems, with hopes that remediation could start in early 2018. The project remains ongoing.

More mercury may still be leaching into the waterway from a former dump site in Dryden. The Supreme Court of Canada issued an order last December for Weyerhaeuser and Resolute to pay for remediation.

First Nations are also pressing the federal government for a mercury clinic to be built in Grassy Narrows, in order to help treat First Nation members impacted by mercury contamination. However, negotiations have been difficult.

After Thursday's announcement, the minister responsible for Natural Resources and Forestry, John Yakabuski, noted 30 million cubic metres were harvested in 2000, but this year he says closer to 15 million cubic metres will be harvested. Yakabuski said this meant the forestry sector had room to grow, while still remaining sustainable.

The industry association and many companies endorsed the province's new strategy, saying it would address the regulatory and administrative burden, while also improving forest management practices, improving cost competitiveness and building the industry of tomorrow.

The sawmill at Kenora Forest Product has been idle, after Prendiville Industries filed for bankruptcy last December. Its pulp mill has been closed for more than a decade.

Following the forestry crisis, the iLevel or Timberstrand mill operated by Weyerhaeuser is the only mill left standing in the city. After a slump related to the coronavirus, management reported it was back on track with about 220 staff.

In a 2018 statement, the company said it employs more than 1,000 people in the region, with an overall economic impact exceeding $100 million each year.

"While we currently use alternative wood sources, our Kenora TimberStrand mill depends on a long-term, sustainable supply of hardwood from the Whiskey Jack Forest for about 30 per cent of its requirements," said Weyerhaeuser in their statement.

While the Kenora Forest is managed by First Nations under Miisun and Miitigoog corporations, the Whiskey Jack is managed by the province under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The First Nation claims traditional lands that overlap with about two-thirds of the Whiskeyjack Forest. 

For more information:

Industry happy to see new forestry strategy

Whiskeyjack Forest Management Plan 2012 to 2022

Weyerhaeuser - Statement on Grassy Narrows (2018)

MNRF - Find a forest management plan