Hoping to set a precedent on Indigenous peoples and environmental rights, the Grassy Narrows First Nation is heading to court on Monday in a legal bid to stop Ontario's plan to allow clear-cutting near the community's traditional territory.
The Canadian tribe says a proposed forest management plan, which would see clear-cutting of about 50,000 hectares of the Whiskey Jack Forest, would "prolong and deepen the ongoing tragedy of mercury poisoning" in local waterways, thereby violating their "rights to security and freedom from discrimination," according to a press statement.
The case could become the first to successfully use the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect people against harm and discrimination arising from environmental degradation.
"We're trying to protect our people's health here, our fundamental human rights," Chief Roger Fobister told CBC News.
"It saddens me that we are forced to fight in court to protect our children from the dangerous mercury impacts of clear-cut logging," Fobister added in a statement. "I hope that the court will finally end Ontario’s long legacy of forcing harmful decisions on our families and our homeland."
Research shows (pdf) that clear-cutting can release methylmercury—a neurotoxin—into the environment.
What's more, many of the lakes and rivers in areas where logging will take place already face fish consumption restrictions due to the past industrial dumping of mercury.
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In late August, the Grassy Narrows First Nation declared a state of emergency due to a prolonged lack of access to safe drinking water.
And in June, 50 years after a nearby pulp mill dumped its effluent into a northern Ontario watershed, a study commissioned by the provincial government and the Grassy Narrows First Nation showed that mercury continues to rise in some lakes where the people of Grassy Narrows continue to catch and eat fish.
"When I was pregnant I couldn’t afford to buy food at the store, so I ate what my grandfather brought home—mostly fish," said Grassy Narrows mother Sherry Fobister, an applicant in the lawsuit. "Now I cry because I fear that my daughter may suffer for her whole life. She deserves to live a good life and be happy. This pain is never going to end if Ontario allows clear-cut logging to add even more mercury into our river."
Despite abundant evidence, Ontario refused Grassy Narrows' request for an individual environmental assessment of the impacts of clear-cut logging on the health of the community, its waterways, and its fish. In fact, the 1,200-page logging plan approved by Ontario does not even contain the word 'mercury.'
It it with all this mind that the community filed its lawsuit.
"We are asking the court to intervene to ensure that the basic rights of all Canadians, including the right to be safe from harm imposed by the government and the right to be free of discrimination, are finally upheld in Grassy Narrows," said Joseph Castrilli, legal counsel at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, which is representing the tribe. "Our clients believe that the members of Grassy Narrows have endured far too much harm and, therefore, are owed the highest degree of precaution and environmental justice."