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Spill proves Algoma Steel must consult with First Nations: Chief

'It’s not just being downstream, it’s also being downwind that is a huge concern and we talk about the elevated health impacts,' said Chief Andy Rickard about Garden River First Nation's proximity to Algoma Steel
Chief Andy Rickard seen prior to grand entry at the 2021 Garden River First Nation Pow Wow.

Garden River First Nation is monitoring the possible impacts on local wildlife and on its residents who use the St. Marys River after an oil spill that occurred upstream in Sault Ste. Marie on Thursday.

Reached by telephone on Thursday, Chief Andy Rickard said the environmental team for Garden River is keeping a close eye on the situation as oil from the 20,063-litre spill has been seen carried along the St. Marys River.

The team was proactive and travelled to Sault Ste. Marie soon after the spill to begin observing it, said Rickard.

The St. Marys River runs right through Garden River First Nation and is home to countless types of wildlife, he noted.On Thursday, Algoma Public Health issued a public advisory warning residents downstream from Algoma Steel not to consume, swim or bathe in water drawn from the St. Marys River as a result of the spill.

Rickard said his immediate priority is to keep residents of Garden River aware of the situation and its possible impacts.

"Many people fish from the shore," said Rickard.Algoma Steel has never reached out to Garden River with meaningful consultations in its 120-year history, said Rickard.

“I remember talking to some of the leaders here before my time and reading some of the information and coming to the conclusion that meaningful engagement, consultation and accommodation — none of that was ever done with our community,” he said. “For many years I have heard it loud and clear from our citizens about the impacts, from a wildlife standpoint, a fish standpoint, the water standpoint and even the air quality being downwind, as well.”

This most recent incident just proves that Algoma Steel has to consult with Garden River because the First Nation is directly impacted by everything that industry does, said Rickard.

Similar consultations never occurred between the First Nation and other industries, like the former St. Marys Pulp and Paper, he said.

“Algoma Steel — we sort of forced their hand reaching out to them to tell them we need to talk about this because we want to make sure that engagement, that communication, especially if anything environmental comes up, we need to be worried about so we can notify our citizens, especially those living beside the water,” he said.

Rickard said having those consultations is important for his community moving forward.“It’s not just being downstream, it’s also being downwind that is a huge concern and we talk about the elevated health impacts,” said Rickard. “This is our opportunity to assert our responsibilities in a nation-to-nation way and say we are living with these impacts and we are going to be consulted, we are going to be accommodated for some of these things that have happened in the past.

”A sit-down meeting between Garden River leadership and Algoma Steel brass was supposed to occur in November, but was postponed due to COVID-19.

“We look to improve the relationships with the steel plant and having these meaningful discussions about the environment, some of the resources around this area and opening up the dialogue,” said Rickard. “I am quite confident we are on a good path.”

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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