Decades-old water pollution ravaged the health of two Ontario First Nations. Elders are still fighting for justice

Betty Riffel said members of the Wabauskang First Nation should have been compensated for the poisonings if the issue was handled the “right way,” but those members have since died. Photo by Anushka Yadav

Through a settlement act finalized in 1986, the Asubpeeschoseewagong and Wabaseemoong First Nations started to receive compensation for mercury poisoning.

The act created the Mercury Disability Fund to allow the two First Nations to apply for compensation if they had or developed symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning.

Each community was to receive $1 million.

Wabauskang First Nation was never part of the settlement. The First Nation says it was left out despite enduring decades-long water contamination in the early days.

Even though families living in Quibell were closer to the mill site than the other two communities that received compensation, Riffel said her community did not even learn about the contamination until the 1980s.

Asked why Wabauskang First Nation was left out, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) wrote the two communities “initiated discussions on the settlement” and the Wabauskang First Nation would be the best place to ask.

The province of Ontario has reportedly ruled the First Nation was left out because it was in a separate watershed.

“We have never received any compensation or even acknowledgment from Canada or Ontario of what was done to us,” Riffel wrote in a 2012 letter to the Canadian media in a quest for government support. “We attempted to get both governments to address our problems many times, but we have been ignored. Canada told us it was nothing to do with them. Ontario told us there was no money to help us.”

At the time, the letter gained some media attention, but not much else. More than nine years later, Riffel’s fight for compensation continues.

Since the early 2000s, the community has conducted a variety of tests for contamination.

Today, Wabauskang First Nation is part of the English-Wabigoon Rivers Remediation Trust Panel, an $85-million provincial trust fund to help remediate the river that is unrelated to Riffel’s compensation fight.

Both Riffel and Alissa Van Wynen were invited to sit on the panel that studies and plans for the cleanup of contaminated English-Wabigoon river system.

Van Wynen, a former environmental adviser from Wabauskang First Nation, said many studies have indicated contaminants existed in the river system pre-dating the mercury dump.

“The whole focus is on mercury, but there’s other contaminants, and that’s what Wabauskang is trying to get out there,” said Van Wynen. “We’d like to have some kind of recognition and acknowledgment from the government that there are other contaminants that poisoned our people.”

From 2002 to 2009, Asubpeeschoseewagong and Wabaseemoong tested traditional meat from their territories and found high levels of furans and dioxins.

Asked whether Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks ever tested wild meat for furans and dioxins, a media spokesperson simply wrote no.

After more than 70 years, Riffel has waited a long time to see one thing.

“Recognition … we were the victims of some kind of contamination,” said Riffel.

The elders would also like to see a nursing home and a memorial in Quibell to honour the lives lost to industrial pollution.

A media spokesperson with the Ministry of Long Term Care wrote that no applications for a nursing home in Dryden had been submitted in 2020. ISC also wrote it is not in discussions with the community about a nursing home.

As for a memorial site, in an email, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs wrote, “There are no current plans for memorialization at any sites in the watershed.”

Anna Banerji said the government is failing to provide for Indigenous people. Photo supplied

Dr. Anna Banerji, a professor at Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said Indigenous people and rural and marginalized communities have a shared history of inequality.

“It’s what I would call an apartheid system, where you get resources based on race,” said Banerji.

Banerji said the government is failing to provide for Indigenous communities.

“Somewhere down the line, we’re going to have to make a stand on it and prove our point and let the world know that we’ve been put through a lot of crap, too,” said Chief Petiquan.

As for Riffel, she is concerned about how much time she has left to keep her promise.

“We lost a lot of our people, (they) should have been compensated,” said Riffel.

“(They are) just waiting for us to die.”

This series is part of Clean Water, Broken Promises, a national investigation examining water issues in Indigenous communities co-ordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, and in partnership with Humber College and Canada’s National Observer.

— With files from Patrick Simpson and Druv Sareen

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