According to a federal-run database – part of a 15-year effort under the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan – there have been 335 cases where industry has polluted the water and soil on First Nations reserve lands, which is more than half of all reserve lands in the country.
VICE News Canada, in a special feature on the indigenous water crisis, believes that the real number for such cases is likely higher, as the federal report does not cover cases such as N’dilo’s arsenic poisoning and Grassy Narrows’s mercury problem – the sources of the contamination of these pollution cases were located outside reserve lands and therefore outside federal jurisdiction.
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Ever since the Giant Gold Mine opened across Great Slave Lake in 1948, arsenic levels in N’dilo have spiked. Oral evidence from Dene elder Therese Sangris revealed that at least four children perished due to arsenic poisoning in the spring of 1951. The issue continues to be a major health hazard to this day, where arsenic soil levels near the school and some homes are more than three times the maximum level allowed for industrial land use.
In the case of Grassy Narrows, the area had been contaminated by mercury upstream that was being dumped by a pulp and paper mill. The mercury poisoned the fish, as well as the people who ate them. It took decades of pressure from the public to force Ontario to commit funding for the cleanup, even after a former mill worker admitted to burying barrels of mercury in the area.
The federal database identified 1,090 active contaminated sites on those 335 First Nation reserves, which means those areas are confirmed contaminated zones that require further testing or a full cleanup. Of those sites, 198 of them are classified as “high priority for action,” and include soil and groundwater contamination.
Although there is a list of reserve land areas in dire need of cleanup, the remediation process has been painfully slow. Between 2012 and 2016, only around 50 of those polluted First Nation sites were remediated with funding from Indigenous Affairs. Approximately 300 sites on 134 reserves have been identified for clean-up between 2016 and 2020.
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