TORONTO — The family of an Ontario First Nation chief who was a vocal advocate for a community plagued by a mercury-contaminated river called Friday for an inquest into his death, saying it was needed to shed light on the illness he grappled with for years.
Those close to Steve Fobister Sr., the former chief of the Grassy Narrows First Nation, said the probe could prove what they believe is true — that the community leader’s death at 66 earlier this month was the result of long-term mercury poisoning.
“The family is looking for the truth and we don’t see any other avenue to find out the truth,” said Robert Williamson, a friend of Fobister. “An inquest would be something that finds out what’s really happening.”
Fobister’s family also called on the prime minister and Ontario’s health minister to acknowledge that the former chief was poisoned by mercury.
“Our beloved Steve died without ever getting the closure of having a government minister look into his eye and admit that he was poisoned by mercury,” said Fobister’s niece, Sylvia Wapioke. “Instead, he was forced to fight for four decades for mercury justice in the face of denial, delay and discrimination.”
Mercury contamination has plagued the English-Wabigoon River system near Grassy Narrows ever since a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the river systems in the 1960s. The contamination closed a thriving commercial fishery and devastated Grassy Narrows’ economy.
Fobister’s family said he suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder that was the result of mercury poisoning. Consequently, Fobister had trouble walking and chewing, they said.
An inquest into his death, they said, would help others in his community who are also dealing with similar ailments.
A spokeswoman for Ontario’s chief coroner said his office had learned of Fobister’s Oct. 11 death on Friday and would begin an investigation. A decision about holding an inquest will be made after the investigation is complete, said Cheryl Maher.
The coroner’s office investigates approximately 17,000 deaths in the province a year and holds 40 to 45 inquests on average.
Sol Mamakwa, the NDP legislator who represents the riding that is home to Grassy Narrows, said the provincial government needs to fully acknowledge the damage that has been done to the community by mercury poisoning.
“I asked the government to admit publicly that Mr. Fobister had died as a result of mercury poisoning,” he said. “Again, they did not answer.”
When asked about Fobister’s death on Thursday, Ontario Government House Leader Todd Smith said both Energy Minister Greg Rickford and Environment Minister Rod Phillips have met with the chief and elders of Grassy Narrows.
“What happened in Grassy Narrows is an historic tragedy,” he said. “I know that our government is committed to working extremely closely with the members of Grassy Narrows … to come to a proper conclusion in this case.”
Earlier this week, federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott called Fobister a “strong and passionate voice” for Grassy Narrows.
“It is clear that community members have suffered for generations– suffering that continues to this day,” she said. “Steve’s work was focused on ensuring a better and brighter future for his community, and the federal government will continue to be a partner in this critical work.”
Ontario’s former Liberal government committed $85 million to remediate the river system, while the federal government has committed to funding a treatment centre for those affected by mercury contamination.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press
photo above is Steve Fobister at home in 2015. (courtesy FreeGrassy.net)