OTTAWA - Former federal Liberal leader Bob Rae says he was unaware during his tenure as Ontario premier that there was likely ongoing mercury contamination taking place upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation.
A recently disclosed 2016 report says the contamination lingered for decades after mercury from an upstream paper mill was first dumped in the Wabigoon River in northwestern Ontario in the 1960s.
The findings, first published by the The Toronto Star, were commissioned for the mill's current owner, Domtar, and show contamination lingered for decades and likely still does, despite repeated assurances from public officials over the years that there was no ongoing source of mercury in the river.
Rae, whose term as premier began in 1990, said Monday he had no idea that was the case, adding that the report makes it clear that vital information was missing.
"I think everybody has to recognize information was not forthcoming," he said Monday.
"I was not aware of it, but I think it is very critical that information be made available, be made public and there be a full explanation as to what its implications are for (the) current health and safety of First Nations people."
Rae's comments, made on the sidelines of an Indigenous Peoples summit in Ottawa, come ahead of a meeting on Wednesday between Ontario Indigenous Relations Minister David Zimmer, federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and Grassy Narrows leadership.
Earlier this month, Zimmer said the report was received by the provincial government in September 2016 but premier Kathleen Wynne says she was not made aware of it.
"We are not sure exactly how that information hadn't made it to my desk, but we're asking that question," Wynne said at the time. "It is always a concern if we don't have the information that we need to make good decisions."
Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister has cheered Ontario's commitment to spend $85 million cleaning up the mess, but wants the federal government to pay for a new facility in the community so locals can receive treatment closer to home.
The people of Grassy Narrows, including children, continue to bear the physical and emotional scars of mercury contamination, Fobister said, adding the community requires specialized equipment.
Fobister has spent time at a similar centre in Japan — the world authority on Minamata disease caused by mercury contamination — and says Japanese researchers have concluded more than 90 per cent of the people in Grassy Narrows and the nearby Wabaseemoong (White Dog) First Nation have symptoms of the condition.
Organizations including Human Rights Watch agree the current extent of federal help for Grassy Narrows is inadequate, given the chronic nature of the problem.
It is clear Ottawa has constitutional obligations to the community, Rae said Monday.
For her part, Philpott has also acknowledged Ottawa "has obligations" to address health needs on reserve, adding Ottawa will contribute to the cost of a feasibility study to see how much a treatment centre would cost in Grassy Narrows.
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