07/29/2014 10:52 EDT | Updated 09/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Ontario pledges to push for review of mercury poisoning compensation board

TORONTO - Ontario will push for a review of a board that oversees compensation for residents of two First Nations still suffering health issues from mercury poisoning that occurred five decades ago, Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer said Tuesday.

The minister said he will work with the federal government and Wabaseemoong First Nation to gain their approval for a review that would look at the level of benefits provided by the Mercury Disability Board, which has come under fire by aboriginal groups.

"I think Ontarians, First Nation members and indeed all Canadians ... feel in their hearts that something has to be done," Zimmer said.

Ontario would also look at options for more treatment for Grassy Narrows First Nation residents in their community, he said, as they currently have to travel long distances for medical help.

Water around Grassy Narrows has been contaminated with mercury since a local paper mill dumped an estimated 10 tonnes of neurotoxins into the system between 1962 and 1970.

Zimmer said he was stirred during his three-hour talk on Sunday with former Grassy Narrows chief Steve Fobister, who suffers from the debilitating neurological effects of mercury poisoning and has been pushing for the review.

"Hearing directly from him in a very human way what mercury poisoning is all about, it moves the soul and it moves everyone to want to do something to combat it," he said.

Fobister said he'll end the hunger strike that he started Monday to spur action on the issue.

"The minister's statement has brought some measure of comfort, but we still have work to do," he said.

Fobister said he wants to see greater participation from both levels of government to be "seriously committed, not just to play political and legal games with the persisting problems that we're dealing with at this time."

The Mercury Disability Board, which includes both levels of government, was formed in 1985 as part of an out-of-court settlement reached between Grassy Narrows and the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations and Ottawa, the province and two paper companies over mercury-related claims.

The Grassy Narrows First Nation said Monday it had obtained an unreleased report that found the board's criteria to determine whether someone had symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning were based on old science.

The report, which was commissioned by the board in 2009, also said there was "no doubt" people in the northwestern Ontario community of roughly 1,600 near Kenora suffered from mercury-related neurological disorders.

It found the board recognized only 38 per cent of the cases identified by other experts, noting the discrepancies "are due to different criteria used for evaluations" than those employed by Japanese experts who examined the community between 1975 and 2004.

Zimmer said he'll call federal officials Tuesday afternoon to get the ball rolling and travel Aug. 6 to Grassy Narrows.

"It's appropriate after 29 years — as you would any organization — to review (the board), to bring it up to date, to get the best science that we can possibly get, to get the best advice on how the board should operate," he said.

First Nations and governments have been talking for the last 50 years about the issue and it can't go on forever, Fobister said.

"I don't think I have any more level of comfort to talk another 50 years," he said.