Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford announced improvements for mercury disability claimants yesterday, during his visit to Grassy Narrows.
After 30 years, Rickford said the amounts set in 1988 should be indexed to the cost of living, and the claimants would receive retroactive payments. The province would also allow claimants to apply for the Ontario Disability Support Program.
"It does not reflect the cost of living, and of course being able to collect certain benefits on ODSP in addition to that I think are policy changes that our government has brought in very quickly," the minister said.
The English River and Wabigoon River systems were contaminated by mercury used in the bleaching process at the Reed paper mill in Dryden. It's estimated 10 tonnes were flushed into the waterways between 1962 and 1970. A settlement agreement was reached with Grassy Narrows and Whitedog members in 1988.
Rickford, who is also the member for Kenora-Rainy River, added the province remained committed to following through on efforts to clean up local waterways impacted by mercury contamination.
Grassy Narrows member Judy Da Silva, who has become a well-know elder and advocate for claimants, says she's happy to see improvements to benefits for mercury disability claimants, but she says there's more that needs to be done.
"I think that the mercury disability board still has to be reformed. We call it comprehensive reform, because it's still not working for our people," she said.
Da Silva says she's one of about 300 claimants who are eligible, from a total population of about 4,000 in Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations. She expects her payments to jump from about $250 a month to about $500, which she appreciated, but it would still be difficult to make ends meet.
Those trying to claim were still having difficulty with the forms, Da Silva added, saying trained neurologists were having trouble with them. She notes an actual clean up of local waterways -- in order to prevent disabilities for future generations -- may still be more than a decade away.
"It's gonna be a 12-year cleaning period. It's just beginning," she said. "People may think that's ridiculous, but when you think of 10 tonnes of mercury."
Engineers have been out taking samples to find out where the highest concentrations are located. This could take two years. A part of the clean up will be stopping the source of the mercury, which is still seeping into the river systems.
"I feel good for my people that they're here and the number of people that showed up. I think it's still a long journey, and they know it, 'cause I heard it," she said, noting the tears shed by speakers at the meeting.
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