Home News Political pressure renewed as G&R languishes

Political pressure renewed as G&R languishes

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More than 30 months after Quebec revoked its permit to operate, G&R Recycling is again in the headlines for its yet unresolved environmental damage, forcing politicians to answer for why more has not been done on a file that has plagued Kanesatake for years.

The reignited mainstream interest in the site was kicked off early this week with the release of an investigation by La Presse, which was assisted by documents obtained by an anonymous group of Kanehsata’kehró:non who are saying enough is enough when it comes to the failure of Canada, Quebec, and the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) to protect the community’s safety.

The marquee finding by La Presse was its discovery, using drone footage it published, of two breaches in a trench that appeared to allow contaminated water to flow into Gratton Creek and ultimately into Lake of Two Mountains.

Robert Gabriel, who owns the facility along with his brother Gary Gabriel, denied the existence of these breaches in an interview with The Eastern Door, insisting he constantly checks for them and has installed precautions such as a bank wall.

The potential health impacts of toxins originating at the site continues to be a concern for residents after years of reports of pollution above acceptable levels due to dumping at the site far beyond the permitted limit.

“Obviously the Kanesatake Health Center (KHC) takes any potential environmental and other health impacts that could result from the toxic G&R dump very seriously,” said Teiawenhniseráhte Tomlinson, KHC’s executive director.

During the three-year Kanesatake portion of the massive Food, Environment, Health, and Nutrition of First Nations Children and Youth (FEHNCY) study, an effort was made to study the impacts of G&R, said Tomlinson, but he noted answers don’t necessarily come easily on whether the dump has harmed community health.

“Unfortunately, with contaminants such as this, it often takes a long period to see the effects translate from our environment to human symptoms,” he said.

While the problem is beyond the capacity of KHC, he said, the health centre maintains a close relationship with the MCK’s environment department; the department’s director, Eugene Nicholas, did not respond to a request for comment.

Tomlinson added that he sees the health centre’s cultural programming as a facet of what the organization can do to confront the larger problem that the G&R site symbolizes to many.

“The deterioration of our social fabric in Kanesatake has reached this point where social responsibility seems lost, and the consequences are dire,” he said.

According to Quebec’s environment ministry, follow-ups have been done to check compliance. “Although the reception of materials has practically ceased at G&R Recycling, the findings reveal that no rehabilitation of the site has been undertaken,” said ministry spokesperson Frédéric Fournier.

In 2021, it was reported that Quebec inspectors were no longer permitted at the site, which Robert does not deny.

“They weren’t doing anything to actually help the situation,” he said. “Their idea of helping it was just giving us fines and shit like that. I came to a point where I was like, you know what, if you guys can’t help, just go, don’t come back, man. On the other hand, the feds have been very helpful.”

So far, the Gabriels have been subject to fines totalling close to $18,000, according to Fournier, and the results of a second investigation are with the director of criminal and penal prosecutions, who will decide whether statements of offence are appropriate.

Fournier added that Quebec has done all it can and that the rest is up to the federal government, including any costs that will be incurred for the rehabilitation of the site, reported to cost at least tens of millions of dollars.

“The illegal dump that is located on the Kanesatake land has the potential to be an environmental bomb,” said minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller at a press scrum in Ottawa on Wednesday, adding that non-Indigenous Quebecers dumped waste illegally at the site for years.

“There is a responsibility at the band council level, at the federal level, at the Quebec government level to get involved and make sure that this bomb doesn’t go off,” he said.

However, MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille downplayed the issue in an interview with CTV News, telling the outlet that the environmental situation, alongside concerns about a pervasive culture of fear in the community, are “taken way out of perspective.” 

“Yes, there’s an issue with the G&R (recycling) site. But we are in discussions with the federal government to come up with a solution and a rehabilitation plan for the area, the whole, entire site. It’s something that’s going to happen,” he told CTV in an article published Wednesday, heaping responsibility for the situation on former MCK grand chief Serge Otsi Simon.

“I am disappointed it got this far, but I’m more disappointed that Serge Simon did nothing about it in his tenure here,” he said.

Bonspille declined to speak to The Eastern Door.

“This is what happens when a sitting government does not have the resources to govern,” said Simon, who was grand chief until summer 2021 and is currently a sitting MCK chief.

“I’m ashamed that it happened under my watch. I’m ashamed that I didn’t fight harder to try to get those resources. It’s not something that any man wants to have under his belt,” he said.

“I’ve hunted, I’ve fished, and I gather still in the bush here. To have this happen? No, I’m not too pleased with myself, that’s for sure.”

According to Simon, in spring 2020 he had wanted to revoke G&R’s band council resolution to allow the site, but other chiefs, including current grand chief Victor Bonspille, outvoted him. The resolution has since been revoked.

Simon said the idea for the facility to be moved to the G&R site was a compromise he helped strike with the facility’s owners because the previous site had been closer to people’s homes. “At the time we had no support from federal, provincial, municipal – we didn’t have help anywhere,” he said.

Simon was not surprised about the latest reports about toxic runoff at the site.

“Now the toxins are starting to bubble up and tell us the truth, the extent of the damage,” he said.

“They started off all legal, everything was great, and somewhere a few years later it wound up where we see today,” he said. He said a contract between MCK and G&R that was agreed upon at that time ended up being violated, a claim Robert does not contest.

“We dropped the ball on that,” said Robert.

Robert said only dry materials were dumped at the site but acknowledged that G&R exceeded permitted amounts.

According to the revocation of G&R’s permit by Quebec’s environment ministry, which was obtained by the group of concerned Kanehsta’kehró:non and shared with The Eastern Door, G&R was allowed 27,000 cubic metres of waste when the permit was issued. By the time of the decision to revoke the permit in 2020, the site had amassed more than 400,000 cubic metres of waste.

The same report also noted a resurgence of black water with an intense odour that was leaching into the environment.

However, Robert downplayed the significance of the water’s toxicity, claiming that recent inspections have shown the water’s contamination is on the “low end of the spectrum.”

“You know, there’s a smell to the water. There’s a discoloration to it,” he said. “It’s not as contaminated and toxic as everybody’s making it out to be. I mean, it’s got to be treated, obviously. But it’s not like you’re going to die if you touch it.”

He also said the problems that have occurred are not unique to G&R.

“I don’t know if you’ve taken any in-depth look at other recycling facilities and the problems they encounter – it’s all around the same thing. The recycling industry is not what I was told it was,” he said.

Robert said he expects a water filtration system to be completed within the next two weeks.

“I’ll clean it up, and that’s what I’ve been working on. I’ve been dealing with stuff on a priority basis,” he said. “Priority was to fix the water. This is one thing people don’t understand. Things of this nature, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Among the calls for action included in an open letter from concerned Kanehsata’kehró:non that helped kick off the latest round of attention paid to G&R is a parliamentary special committee to investigate corruption and the responsibilities of governments, including the MCK, in an atmosphere of lawlessness that is characterized as pervasive.

A statement from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) released on Thursday afternoon said Bonspille and other Council chiefs have met with Indigenous Services minister Patty Hajdu. The government said there is a need for a collaborative approach between the MCK, ISC, ECCC, G&R, and Quebec.

Six follow-up visits by ECCC have been made for the purpose of inspection for compliance with the Fisheries Act since August 2020, according to the statement, with enforcement officers on site on May 8.

The statement also said that in March 2023, Hajdu sent an offer of further supports for Kanesatake to Bonspille, “including funding for a salaried professional to manage the contamination site,” but discussions are ongoing.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

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Marcus is a journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.

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Marcus is a journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.