(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
My brief foray into the issue of Grassy Narrows revealed politicians running away from questions and a bureaucracy stalling to provide information that is supposed to be public, but hasn’t been published. It’s not just the river that is poisoned.
I consider it very likely that the decades-old problem of mercury contamination of the two rivers at Grassy Narrows in Ontario has the dubious distinction of being both the most widely known and the least cared about crisis facing the First Nations in Canada.
Soon after writing my article on how First Nations issues are perceived by newcomers to Canada (‘Strangers To The Dispute’), I had the uncomfortable realization that I didn’t know much about the issue at Grassy Narrows that is literally a life-and-death matter for some of my compatriots. My knowledge about it (using the term ‘knowledge’ very charitably here) was confined to the headlines in our Mainstream Media that appear in sporadic – but predictable – fashion (‘predictability’ being defined as ‘whenever it is politically useful’).
The natural conclusion was that my ignorance of the facts relating to this issue / crisis stemmed from the fact that I had made absolutely no efforts to inform myself on it. In today’s world of hyper-prevalent information, being uninformed is a result of personal choices; shifting the blame to other entities, including the MSM, doesn’t cut it as far as I am concerned.
LIFTING A FINGER
So I decided to email my MPP to find out the status of a $ 85 million plan that the previous government of Ontario had announced in 2017 to ‘remediate’ (meaning ‘remove the mercury contamination from’ in this context) the English and Wabigoon rivers at Grassy Narrows. I tweeted the image of my email, which drew the attention of several friends, both First Nations and others. In order to keep track of the communications, I pinned this tweet to my Twitter profile.
As time went by, other people joined in my conversation on Twitter – again, both First Nations and others. People started pitching in with valuable information via links to a wide variety of sources. I am immensely grateful to all of them.
Over the half century or so since this environmental catastrophe was reported, a lot has been written and said about it – but the issue has still not been addressed. The poisoned waters at Grassy Narrows still continue to pose a fatal danger to many Canadians’ lives every single day. This brings to mind the adage ‘After everything is said and done, more is said than done’; the only difference at Grassy Narrows is that pretty much nothing has been done.
This extensive reporting – however ineffectual it may have proved to be thus far – was done by people who were both qualified and experienced at that job. I have no such credentials, so it is not my objective here to report on the Grassy Narrows crisis. I come at it from a different angle.
As I kept trying to scale the wall of silence that our governments have erected around the issue, I discovered that it is not just the rivers at Grassy Narrows that are poisoned. The toxin has spread throughout our body politic, and thus pervades it. In the unlikely event that the crisis at Grassy Narrows ever gets resolved, we will still be left with this toxin running through the veins of our politics – and perhaps our society.
In order to keep this article as brief as possible, I am using a different format than the one I usually do.
For those readers who may be short on time, I am giving an executive summary. This is followed by short list of failures on the part of different elected representatives in Ontario (from all political parties, and including Independents), then by a chronological listing (in diary form) of major communication events which, I hope, will reveal the rot in government that enables it to both fail to act and hide that failure. In the final section, I will describe my reasons for taking up this issue.
“I had believed that you wouldn’t ignore me, but it looks like I will have turned into dust before you even notice me.”
(The above is a translation of the following couplet by the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib:
“Hum nay maana kay taghaaful na karogay, lekin
Khaak ho jaayengay hum, tum ko khabar honay tak”)
SHORT LIST OF FAILURES
(Note: All the individuals mentioned below were cc’ed in emails and/or tagged on Twitter multiple times)
Premier Doug Ford: Apart from one reply touting his government’s seriousness on the issue & increasing the mercury disability benefit payments, and hiding behind the excuse that many of the FN issues are multi-jurisdictional, no other response in 7 weeks.
Minister of Environment David Piccini: Not a single reply in 7 weeks (not even via his staff).
Treasury Board President (and my MPP) Prabmeet Sarkaria: Apart from one telephone meeting lasting about 20 minutes, no initiative taken to represent the issue to his cabinet colleague, Minister Piccini. Poor record of responding when it became apparent that boiler-plate replies weren’t going to cut it.
Leader of the Official Opposition, MPP Andrea Horwath: No reply in 3 weeks (not even via her staff). My hopes of the official opposition pouncing on a failure of the government were dashed.
Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, MPP Sara Singh: One reply after 32 days, saying they don’t have any information. No further follow-up communication. My hopes of an opposition MPP, who was quick to virtue-signal on the re-naming of Ryerson University, pouncing on this governmental failure were dashed.
NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa: One fairly prompt reply (4 days) saying they have written to the Minister’s office for an update. No follow-up communication. My hopes of a FN MPP taking more interest in an issue affecting FN’s (located in his riding, no less) were dashed.
Green Party MPP Mike Schreiner: Replied after 2 weeks with the claim that he has ‘called on’ the government for action on this issue, but didn’t respond to my request for a link / source to this claim. My hopes of a ‘green’ politician caring about the environmental aspect of the issue were dashed.
New Blue Party MPP Belinda Karahalios: No reply in 2 weeks. My hopes of a dissident former Conservative MPP who has been critical of the Ford government pouncing on this issue were dashed.
Ontario Liberal Party’s House Leader John Fraser: No reply in 1 week. Since it was his party that put the plan & funding in place, I had hoped that he would grab the political opportunity to revive his party’s political fortunes, but my hopes were dashed.
Independent MPP Roman Baber: His staff replied by asking for my postal code (“to assist you further”). I replied that it is irrelevant detail. Staff responded after 12 days saying they have forwarded my concern to the MPP. My hopes of a dissident former Conservative MPP who has been critical of the Ford government pouncing on this issue were dashed.
Ontario Conservative Nominee for Brampton Centre Charmaine Williams: Replied by saying that since she is not yet elected as MPP, she can’t help (I had asked that she take the matter up with the Party). As someone who seeks to unseat the NDP Deputy Leader Sara Singh as incumbent from Brampton Centre riding, I had hoped that she would pounce on the opportunity to show Ms. Singh’s ‘ally-ship’ with the FN as fake, but my hopes are dashed.
Ontario Ministry of Environment: Apart from confirming that the chairman of the Panel has submitted the Report for 2020-2021 to the Environment Minister, they provided no information over a course of 13 weeks. Remained silent on when mercury remediation can be expected to begin.
Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN): Hasn’t responded to my pitch for a video segment on Grassy Narrows for four weeks. I had thought that as a media outlet dedicated to the issues of Indigenous people, they would be more than willing to highlight the issue, but my hopes were dashed.
July 04, 2021: I wrote my first email to my Conservative MPP Prabmeet Sarkaria, asking for information on the progress of the mercury remediation plan (hereafter referred to as ‘the plan’); no reply was received for two days.
July 07, 2021: I tweeted the fact of non-reply, tagging the MPP. I received his reply in less than 1 hour. (Does social media shaming work on politicians?) The MPP’s email said that the contents were privileged and confidential, and that any public distribution is unauthorized. I tweeted that I may choose to disregard this warning (because it’s taxpayer-funded public record).
July 20, 2021: I send a follow up email to MPP Sarkaria because I didn’t hear back from them. MPP’s office reverts saying they are still awaiting info from Ministry of Environment.
July 26, 2021: I send another follow-up email to MPP Sarkaria (this one is strongly worded). His office replies saying that the Ministry of Environment would like to ‘reach out’ to me directly, and asking me for my phone number. I reply to this asking them to communicate via email (I want all communications to be in writing, to avoid the possibility of disputes later).
July 27, 2021: Ministry of Environment emails me, asking what information I am looking for. (My elected ‘representative’ has acquiesced to being bypassed, because it suits him to do so).
In the meantime, someone has provided a link to the report for 2019-2020 by the Panel that was formed for the remediation plan. I ask the Ministry for the report for 2020-2021 which was supposed to have been published in June 2021. In is now exactly one month since I started asking for info, but there has been zero progress thus far.
August 4, 2021: I send a follow-up email to Ministry of Environment, requesting them again for the Report for 2020-2021. They reply that ‘the report is not currently available; however, the ministry will post it online as (they) have done in previous years’. I respond by asking the approximate timeline when the report would be made public, noting that it was overdue by two months already.
August 06, 2021: I write an email to Ontario NDP MP for Brampton Centre, Sara Singh, seeking her help in getting the Panel Report for 2020-2021. In the recent past, when many students at Ryerson University declared that they would be calling it ‘X University’ as the name Ryerson was associated with the Residential Schools, she had been publicly supportive of removing the name “Ryerson’. So I am hopeful that she would be more interested in the alleviating plight of the First Nations community at Grassy Narrows.
August 10, 2021: Ministry of Environment replies, saying that the report would be ‘published later this year, following tabling in the legislature’. (The year has 143 days left)
(At this point, several people on my Twitter thread say that they keep ‘liking’ my original tweet, and their ‘like’ keeps disappearing. This is the only tweet of mine where I have heard this. Is there a linkage between the government and the social media companies?)
August 10, 2021: I write an email to Ontario Minister of Environment, David Piccini, asking him to provide a copy of the Report. I point out specifically that Conservatives are perceived as racist by many Canadians, and inaction on this critical file would only serve to cement this perception.
August 14, 2021: I send an email to NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, as I think Grassy Narrows is oocated within his riding. Since he is FN, I am doubly hopeful of his involvement in the matter.
August 18, 2021: NDP MPP Sol Mamkwa’s office replies saying that they have written to the Minister’s office requesting an update.
August 23, 2021: I send reminders to MPP Prabmeet Sarkaria & Environment Minister David Piccini, saying that if I don’t get the info by end of next day, I would escalate the matter.
August 24, 2021: MPP Sarkaria’s office replies saying that ‘a letter from Minister Piccini will be forthcoming in regards to your request’. No timeline is specified for this letter. In reply, I reiterate that I would be escalating the matter by end of next day.
August 25, 2021: I write email to Premier Doug Ford about my request. I have copied Minister Piccini and MPP’s Prabmeet Sarkaria, Sara Singh & Sol Mamakwa. I intend to wait for one week for Premier Ford to respond. It is noteworthy here that I haven’t heard back at all from Minister Piccini & MPP Sara Singh.
August 29, 2021: I meet my MPP Sarkaria at an event of his, and ask him, in person, about the delay in publishing the Panel Report for 2020-2021. I record the conversation on my phone (audio) and upload it to my podcast, tagging the MPP.
August 31, 2021: Premier Ford replies with a word salad that side-steps the issue completely. Extols his government for its commitment to FN issues, and takes cover behind saying that many of these issues are ‘multi-jurisdictional’.
The Ministry of Environment also sends an email, saying that ‘a reply will be sent as soon as possible’.
September 01, 2021: My MPP Prabmeet Sarkaria talks to me on the phone, after some confusion over a video call. He assures me to take up the issue with his government.
September 07, 2021: I upload the link to a video segment on Brampton Focus / City Studio with Jocelyn Burzuik & Melissa Mbarki. Kudos to Don McLeod & Fazal Khan for making this possible.
On the same day, NDP MPP Sara Singh replies to my email (after 32 days), saying they don’t have any info on the matter.
I also email an action plan for the immediate term to MPP Sarkaria, Minister Piccini & Premier Ford.
September 08, 2021: Ministry of Environment conveys by email that the Panel did submit its report for 2020-2021 on June 01, 2021.
September 14, 2021: I write email to Brampton Councillor Charmaine Williams, who is also the nominated Conservative candidate for Brampton Centre (by acclamation) for the 2022 provincial election. He staff replies that since Ms. Williams not yet elected, she is unable to help. I had hoped that she would pounce on the opportunity to show the incumbent NDP MPP Sara Singh in bad light on a sensitive issue.
September 15, 2021: I write to Ontario NDP leader MPP Andrea Horwath, seeking her help in the matter. I am hopeful that as the leader of the official opposition, she will be receptive to a chance of hammering the government for its failure.
September 22, 2021: The Ford government is already falling behind the schedule of the plan for the immediate term. I write email to Premier Ford, Minister Piccini & MPP Sarkaria.
September 23, 2021: Hoping to enlist the support of dissident Consevative MPP’s who had been expelled from the caucus, and the lone Green Party MPP, I write emails to Belinda Karahalios, Roman Baber & Mike Schreiner. I think they will welcome the opportunity to criticize the Ford government.
September 24, 2021: The office of Independent MPP (formerly Conservative) Roman Baber replies, asking for my postal code in order to assist me further. I reply saying that it is irrelevant detail.
September 29, 2021: Ford government falls even further behind on the Immediate Term Plan. I write email to Premier Ford, Minister Piccini & MPP Sarkaria, pointing out that we are a mere 7 months away from the next election campaign, and their neglect of the issue may cot them support.
October 04, 2021: Ontario Green Party MPP Mike Schreiner replies, saying he has called on the Ford government for action on the issue. I respond by asking for a link to his statement(s) so that I can push them on social media & other avenues. I am hopeful that a combined push would yield the desired result.
October 05, 2021: I send email to Ontario Liberal Party’s House Leader, MPP John Fraser, seeking his help. As it was his party that put the plan & funding in place, I am hopeful that he will evince a keen interest in highlighting the failure of the Ford government.
October 06, 2021: The office of Independent MPP Roman Baber conveys that they have forwarded my concern to the MPP. This has happened 12 days after my original request.
October 7, 2021: I send email to Kathleen Wynne, the former Premier whose government had put the plan & funding in place 4 years ago.
MAKING IT PERSONAL
A logical question may arise in the minds of some readers as to why I am spending time and energy on a matter that doesn’t affect me personally. The phenomenon of ‘activists’ and ‘social climbers’ taking up certain causes as a launching pad for political careers – or for other personal gain – is well-known (I have mentioned it myself in some of my articles), so I don’t begrudge such a question. In fact, I consider it my duty to answer it proactively.
At the outset, let me say unequivocally that I have zero interest in leveraging this inquiry of mine into a political career, or for personal benefit of any sort at all. I am acutely aware that even if I tried, I would be a total and complete misfit in the political culture that exists today in Canada – whether in the political circles proper or elsewhere.
There are three main reasons why I have pursued this matter, and will continue to do so:
Firstly, I consider myself to be a well-informed person. Therefore, the realization that after nearly two decades in Canada, I didn’t know anything beyond the bare minimum on such an important issue hurt my ego. The amount of literature that exists on the Grassy Narrows crisis would, if piled up, suffice to create a mountain. I had not seen the mountain that was right in front of me, in plain sight. In order to regain my self-esteem in my own mind, it was necessary for me to dig into the issue and gather as much information as I could lay my hands on and process in my mind. The stonewalling by the Ontario government turned this simple inquiry into a project, and steeled my resolve to not only obtain the information. The realization (along the way) that the plan had not even begun to be implemented, but millions of dollars had been spent on doing nothing, enraged me as a voter – so my project evolved into a push to get the plan implemented.
Secondly, my father was a civil engineer, and spent his entire working life building and maintaining dams for the government of Gujarat. When I was old enough to understand, he started talking to me about the technical aspects of building dams and providing water to communities in the semi-arid regions of Gujarat. As I grew older, his narrations became more detailed. As a result, I believe that my relationship with water, and specifically with the systems to supply usable water to populations, is more intimate than the average person. His stories have left me with an appreciation of water supply such that I find it absolutely revolting that this most basic of necessities has been left neglected for half a century in a water-abundant part of the world. The situation at Grassy Narrows is akin to living in the Sahara desert and not having access to sand.
Thirdly and lastly, there is a specific period in the Hindu calendar (the second fortnight of the 11th month of the year) called Shraddh Paksh, when we are supposed to pay homage to our deceased parents. Since the Hindu calendar is a lunar one, this fortnight falls (on the western calendar) anywhere between mid-September to mid-October. The day on which one pays homage to a parent (called ‘Shraddh tithi’) is the lunar date on which they passed. This year, the date for me to pay homage to my father was on September 20th. I had originally intended to publish this article on that date. However, the federal election date happened to fall on the same day. If I had published this article on September 20th, it would have been drowned out in the election-related coverage. I also suspected that the same would happen on the date by the western calendar (September 28) on which he passed.
As the next option, I considered putting this article online on October 02, the Shraddh tithi for my late father-in-law. Just like my father, he was also a civil engineer and built dams. We were also very close, so I consider him just like I do my father. But on October 02, public debates were inundated by the story of and opinions on Prime Minister Trudeau’s vacation to Tofino, instead of commemorating the first ever National Day of Truth & Reconciliation. So I held off.
The next psychologically important marker was 100 days since I first started my inquiry with the MPP on the issue of Grassy Narrows mercury remediation plan. That day happens to be today (October 11) – and by coincidence, it is also Thanksgiving Day. From what I have learned about this day, it is deeply connected with the Native people of North America. This is why I am publishing this article today, in lieu of September 20th or October 2nd.
Therefore, although I am publishing this article well after the Shraddh Paksh is over, it is my homage to my father and my father-in-law for this year. I will, of course, continue to persist with my efforts for as long as it takes; my father spent 38 years bringing water supply to people, and my father-in-law an almost equal length of time. Soon after they began doing that, the waters at Grassy Narrows were poisoned. If these waters get cleaned up in my lifetime, I will be able to face both of them as their true successor afterwards.