Environment commissioner gives Canada failing grade on Northern contaminated sites

Environment commissioner

Federal Environment Commissioner Jerry V. DeMarco holds a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, April 20, 2023. DeMarco is giving the federal government a failing grade on reducing their financial liability in remediating contaminated sites in the north — and says they’re leaving some Indigenous Peoples out of the process altogether. Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

Ottawa is failing to remediate contaminated sites in the North, leaving Indigenous peoples at risk and raising the government’s own financial liability for the polluted areas, environment commissioner Jerry DeMarco said Tuesday in a new audit.

DeMarco’s probe found that the government’s liability for contaminated sites increased by $7 billion since 2005, when the government launched its plan to remediate and reclaim abandoned mines.

More than 60 per cent of that liability is in the North.

“After 20 years, there is still much work needed to reduce financial liability related to contaminated sites and to lower environmental and human health risks for current and future generations,” said DeMarco.

“As well, the government needs to take urgent action to advance socio-economic benefits, including employment opportunities, and to support reconciliation with Indigenous peoples whose lands are often affected by contaminated sites.”

DeMarco said at one mine there is still ongoing work needed to keep contaminated water from leaching into surrounding areas, while another still houses a large volume of arsenic which needs to remain frozen underground.

Most of those sites are on Indigenous land but DeMarco said Indigenous Peoples are not being fully included in the remediation efforts.

DeMarco called their inclusion in the efforts a “significant opportunity” to support reconciliation and promote economic development.

He said during remediation work at the Giant Mine near Yellowknife the department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada failed to meet employment targets for northern and northern Indigenous workers.

While the department began developing a socio-economic framework for the Faro Mine in south-central Yukon, it failed to do complete it. However DeMarco said it did exceed internal targets for training of Indigenous Peoples, northerners and women during the pre-remediation work.

DeMarco said Indigenous Peoples expressed concern with the federal government’s handling of projects, saying there has been a lack of meaningful engagement, consultation and consideration of their inputs. He also found a lack of capacity for the communities and administrative burdens, along with a lack of socio-economic benefits.

He is urging the federal government to “leverage opportunities” with Indigenous Peoples to participate in and benefit from the management of the sites, which Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada agreed to do.

Ottawa has a lot of work to do to not just reduce its financial liability but also address the very real environmental and health risks for current and future generations in the region, he said.

Story by Alessia Passafiume.

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