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Governments react to G & R contamination

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Despite the permit revocation and stalling of the operations of G & R Recycling last October, the harmful contamination caused by the centre’s activities in Kanesatake continues to stir up concern.

An investigation published by The Eastern Door last Friday, September 10, revealed that over a five-year period, G & R had repeatedly released contaminants, some toxic, into bodies of water flowing into the Lake of Two Mountains, which meets the Ottawa River.

Community members, environmental advocates, and politicians from far and wide reacted to the damning information made public.

“I have many concerns about the possible effects on the environment,” said the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Akwirente Bonspille. “Those concerns are going to be there for a long time – not just with me, but with our community at large.”

The investigation draws on additional documents provided by a coalition of Onkwehón:we and settler advocates working with ReconciliAction; non-profit Eau Secours, and the Front commun québécois pour une gestion écologique des déchets (FCQGED).

Quebec Indigenous Affairs minister Ian Lafrenière was quick to respond to the situation, which environmental experts consulted by The Eastern Door state have caused “a definite impact on the environment.”

Last Friday, Lafrenière tweeted he had called Bonspille and that a tri-party meeting would take place in the following days.

“There will need to be more than one meeting planned. The first one will be with us – the Indigenous Affairs office – the (provincial) environment department and the band council,” explained the minister in an interview with The Eastern Door“Following this, we also have one planned with our equivalent at the federal level,” he continued, adding that federal Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) minister Marc Miller confirmed officials from his office would be present.

An initial meeting took place on Thursday, September 16, between MCK, the local Environment Department, Quebec’s Environment Ministry, the provincial Indigenous Affairs department, ISC, Health Canada and Transports Quebec. With the support of these organizations, the council said it looks forward to rectifying the “problematic environmental issues” the community is facing. Another meeting is planned for October.

In the meanwhile, contenders in the upcoming election have also spoken up on the matter.

On Tuesday, September 14, the New Democratic Party (NDP) sent a press release in which they denounced what they call inaction by the Liberals. 

“Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are completely absent when they should be dealing with these bandits who are threatening the quality of the water and the environment in Kanesatake. They have not taken their responsibilities,” reads the communiqué signed by NDP candidate for the Montreal riding of Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie, Alexandre Boulerice. “Reconciliation with the (Indigenous) Peoples is also about ensuring the prevention of such irresponsible actions that harm Indigenous and surrounding communities.”

Later in the week, the Green Party of Canada released a statement citing their outrage over an Indigenous territory being used as a “toxic waste dump,” and condemned it as an act of clear environmental racism. “It’s inconceivable that Kanehsatà:ke, one of the smallest Indigenous territories in Quebec, is contaminated by toxic waste from outside. The first step toward a solution is to make public the analyses that have already been done,” said Mario Guay, Green Party candidate in Mirabel.

The press release denotes that from the party’s standpoint, the responsibility of decontaminating the site belongs to the federal government. “How can we have a reconciliation with the First Nations, Metis and Inuit when we allow their land to be contaminated?” stated the president of the Quebec wing of the Party and candidate in Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Luc Joli-Coeur.

Documents obtained through access to information requests by The Eastern Door demonstrate that the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change had long been preoccupied by the contamination attributed with the site’s activities.

The presence of substances such as p-Cresol, PCBs and metals, along with oxygen indication levels exceeding the chronic aquatic water quality criteria, were flagged as worrisome by ministerial inspectors, as well as ecotoxicologists consulted. 

In fact, a ministry report obtained by the coalition led by ReconciliAction and reviewed by The Eastern Door indicates results of PCBs – highly toxic industrial substances – found in the water flowing through the grounds of G & R were 676 times higher downstream from the site than upstream.

“This is evidence that toxic PCBs, a group of substances controlled by federal law, are in the hazardous waste stored at the site,” reads the Green Party statement.

Since the centre began operating in 2016, the ministry received numerous complaints regarding nauseating odours emitted from the site and alarming liquids leaking in streams flowing into the Lake of Two Mountains. 

Although non-compliance orders and fines were issued repeatedly, it wasn’t until October 1, 2020, that the ministry formally demanded the cessation of all activities at G & R.

Lafrenière told The Eastern Door he was well aware of the persisting situation, which was flagged to him by “several people in Kanesatake.” Moreover, he explained he was aware work was currently underway to, among other things, “allow the government of Quebec to intervene on the ground.”

While the owners of the demolition and construction sorting centre, Robert and Gary Gabriel, collaborated with the ministry when the company first began to operate, ministerial inspection reports obtained by The Eastern Door reveal the brothers hastily turned on the ministry, who they forbid from returning to Kanesatake.

“He (Robert Gabriel) affirms that it is the end of the collaboration with Quebec and that the representatives of the Quebec government are not welcome on this Mohawk territory (…),” reads a ministry email dated April 2, 2020.

According to the Environment Quality Act, ministry inspectors were still allowed to enter the site, especially because they were working closely on the file with the MCK. However, the regional ministry department chose to bend to the will of the owners and remain off the territory, reveals internal documents reviewed by The Eastern Door.

In an article published by La Presse, the Parti Québécois (PQ) condemned the fact that inspectors yielded, even temporarily. “It’s unacceptable that following what amounts to intimidation, inspectors from the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change have folded and are no longer on-site to enforce the law,” PQ deputy Sylvain Gaudreault told La Presse.

Setting aside the question of who should have stepped in, the contamination of the site remains a matter MCK is determined to resolve through a collaborative effort.

“We’ve all known there was hazardous waste being disposed of at the site and we’ve also known that it could affect our water table if it’s allowed to sit there any longer without any remediation of the site,” said Bonspille. “The fact today is that we have to come together to fix the problem. We all know what the issue is and we all know the effects of the ongoing problems if they aren’t fixed.”

As federal elections approach on September 20, environmental advocates are calling on politicians not to disregard the situation, which has long plagued Kanehsata’kehró:non.

“The Liberal government’s silence is deafening,” said ReconciliAction member, Louis Ramirez. “Their inaction and efforts to push this under the rug reflect the fact that they know G & R is a symbol and an image of their poor track record on reconciliation.”

As of Thursday, there have been no statements made by either the Liberal or Conservative parties regarding the matter.

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Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door

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Laurence Brisson Dubreuil is a multimedia journalist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, Canada. She holds a BA in journalism, with a minor in law and society from Montreal's Concordia University.

Laurence began reporting with The Eastern Door in the fall of 2020, after completing a fellowship with the Institute for Investigative Journalism, a national investigative organization.

Among many things, Laurence is passionate about investigative reporting, human rights, and environmental issues.

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