Mohawk Mothers worry evidence of human remains at McGill work site will be destroyed

Unmarked graves concern

MONTREAL — After losing their bid to halt construction at the site of a former Montreal hospital, a group of Indigenous women who believe there may be unmarked graves at that location say they’re worried evidence could be jeopardized if work continues.

Workers want to move piles of material — without sifting through them — that were excavated from an area where sniffer dogs have indicated remains could be located, a spokeswoman for the group known as the Mohawk Mothers told reporters Monday.

Moving that material without analyzing it first risks making the search for potential bodies more difficult at the site, where McGill University is expanding its downtown campus, said Kwetiio, who uses one name.

"You want to take remains that need to be sifted, need to be investigated and you just want to pick them up and throw them in a truck and move them somewhere else," she said. "Well, what happens when you find something in that pile somewhere else? You will have already started your construction down here, jeopardizing the evidence that lays there."

Last month, the Mothers failed in their attempt to obtain an emergency court order to stop excavation on part of the site of the former Royal Victoria hospital, where a psychiatric institute used to operate. The government of Canada is named in a 2019 class-action lawsuit application that alleges the state funded abusive psychological experiments — part of the infamous MK-ULTRA program — on vulnerable patients at the institute in the 1950s and 1960s.

Kwetiio said people who were at the psychiatric hospital saw children strapped to beds and chairs and that the remains of those children may have been buried on the site. 

Quebec's infrastructure agency, the Société québécoise des infrastructures, which is overseeing the campus expansion project, said the piles are being moved at the request of archeologists, who want to sift through the material at a safer, quieter location away from the ongoing work. 

"The soil is moved one pile at a time, to avoid mixing. One archeologist supervises the loading of the truck, while another supervises the unloading. Each pile is clearly identified and a sifting priority procedure is developed," spokeswoman Anne-Marie Gagnon wrote in an email Monday, adding that the piles are covered with weatherproof material to protect them from the elements. 

Both the SQI and McGill University say they're honouring an agreement they entered into with the Mothers.

"Cultural monitors appointed by the Mohawk Mothers have been given access to the site for all phases of work," McGill spokesman Michel Proulx wrote in an email Monday. "To date, no evidence has been found to substantiate the presence of unmarked graves."

Kwetiio says McGill and Quebec's infrastructure agency are not acting in good faith. She says McGill and the province committed to thoroughly searching, within a 10-metre radius, areas where sniffer dogs signalled that human remains might be found — but that isn't happening. 

"We're being stopped from doing a proper investigation," she said.

Kwetiio said her group also wants to search a building that is located within the 10-metre radius, because of the possibility that remains will be found in the basement. 

An observer affiliated with the Mothers recently found what appears to be the leather sole of a child’s shoe, Kwetiio said. When the shoe was handed over, the Mothers were told — to their surprise — that bones had also been discovered, she said.

"We're not being told when things are found," she said, adding that she has received no details about where the bones were located or whether they are human or animal.

McGill says that according to a bio-archeologist who has searched the site, the remains found were animal bones. 

"The archeological firm also confirms it does not consider that any of the articles uncovered during the excavation constitute significant discoveries, or that they constitute evidence of human remains or graves," Proulx said.

Proulx said archeological excavations have been conducted in the area where dogs identified the potential for human remains, as well as in nine other areas where ground-penetrating radar suggested the possible presence of unmarked graves. No further evidence of remains or graves were found, he said. 

The Mothers' legal proceedings against McGill and the province began in March 2022, when they filed a civil suit to stop construction. Last October they obtained an injunction ordering a pause on excavation work, with a judge ruling the renovations would cause irreparable harm. After several mediation sessions, the Mothers and McGill reached a deal on April 6. Cultural monitors are also permitted on site to observe.

The agreement stipulates that if no graves are immediately found then excavation work can begin on a rolling basis and in a sensitive manner in case there is an unexpected discovery.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2023. 


Toronto police officer arrested, charged with assault

Toronto cop arrested

Toronto police say one of their officers has been arrested and charged with assault. 

Police say the officer was charged after a dispute between a man and a woman. 

They allege the woman was assaulted during the dispute. 

The police officer charged in the case is a constable with 15 years of service. 

Police say he has been suspended with pay.

The officer is scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 24. 

Insigne apologizes after verbal altercation with disgruntled fans at Toronto FC game

Soccer star sorry for fan fight

Frustration over Toronto FC's dismal season boiled over Saturday night with fans getting into a verbal altercation with injured Italian star Lorenzo Insigne.

It seems most everyone involved behaved badly. Although one can perhaps cut Insigne some slack given his young sons were present and distressed at the abuse coming their father's way.

On Monday, Insigne apologized for the way he reacted. But he also said that while he understands the fans' frustration at a 4-17-10 campaign, he doesn't comprehend the personal attack on the weekend.  

"This is the first time that something like this has ever happened to me, that I'm receiving all these insults that I believe are unjustified — that I'm here just for the money, when I'm not," Insigne said through an interpreter. "This has been very difficult for me mentally, because I'm coming off an injury from (a game against) Miami. And I can't understand why something like this would happen. I'm mentally exhausted."

The 32-year-old Insigne, who has missed the last two games with a lower body injury, was watching Saturday's 3-2 loss to league-leading FC Cincinnati at BMO Field with his wife and two sons from a private box when something was said from the fans below.

The Italian clearly didn't like it, with video posted on social media showing him making an obscene gesture and dropping an F-bomb before being pulled away and leaving the box. The fans involved were ejected.

Toronto general manager Jason Hernandez said Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment continues to investigate the incident.

"There's no doubt our fans and supporters are frustrated, as we all are," Hernandez said in an interview. "I'm incredibly frustrated. I know Lorenzo's incredibly frustrated. He's frustrated that he's dealing with an injury. He's frustrated that the season hasn't gone, I'm sure, to his standards and his liking, certainly not us as a club (to our liking). And so there's frustration to go around."

Despite that, Hernandez said there are lines you don't cross. And while understanding the reaction of Insigne the father, he noted "two wrongs don't make a right."

On Monday, Insigne apologized "to all the fans" for his reaction to the abuse.

"I knew that was irresponsible and I shouldn't have behaved that way," he said. "But while I was sitting there taking these insults, my family was there, my kids were there. They were crying. They thought something was going to happen to me and I kind of reacted as a father, not as a player.

"I'm a professional. I know these things should not happen. And I apologize again to all the fans of Toronto. And this won't happen again."

With Toronto languishing in the league basement, it has been another season to forget.

The team has lost four straight and won just one of its last 18 matches (1-14-3) in all competitions.

Insigne has shown flashes of both brilliance and petulance in a difficult season.

The Italian is not a good loser and it shows. His body language has spoken volumes at times with Insigne looking forlorn while letting others chase after a ball he himself turned over.

Injuries have cut into his season.

He limped off 34 minutes into the Feb. 25 season opener, a 3-2 loss at D.C. United that saw Toronto concede goals in the 90th and 98th minute. He missed the next six games and has played in just 19 of Toronto's 31 league matches this season, starting 17, with four goals and five assists.

Insigne, who made his TFC debut in July 2022, has won just eight of 32 matches he has appeared in wearing Toronto colours.

With a salary of US$7.5 million this year, Insigne ranks second on the MLS salary list, behind only Chicago's Xherdan Shaqiri's $8.153 million, although the MLS Players Association list came out before Lionel Messi joined Inter Miami.

That big-ticket salary, combined with his injury absences, have made Insigne a lightning rod for disgruntled TFC fans who seem to treat the Italian like a Formula One car. It should go fast whenever you turn the key, regardless of the condition of the engine or the pit crew surrounding it.

Insigne is mystified at the recent attacks.

"This is the first time this has ever happened," he said. "Even at the beginning of the year when the team was struggling at times, fans have only been respectful. They were always encouraging, kind."

Insigne said he is "very proud" to be in Toronto and his family is very happy here. And the former Napoli captain spoke highly of the TFC support in such a disappointing season.

"I've never seen fans like this," he said. "You have to appreciate the fans of Toronto because it doesn't matter how bad or how the team is struggling, they still come to the stadium. This is something that you don't see across Europe."

Insigne said if a team was last in Europe, "only the relatives would be at the stadium."

The Italian said he will be back next season and is looking forward to working with former Canada coach John Herdman, who took over the TFC reins this week.

"I'm very excited with the new staff. I'm actually looking forward to the new season," Insigne said. "I've never had so many injuries in my career as I've had this past year and I hope I'm going to get better and in the new season we're all going to work hard together."


Federal ministers still lack mandate letters, two months after majority shuffled

Awaiting mandate letters

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to issue mandate letters for his cabinet ministers, leaving those in new roles without clear marching orders two months after announcing an overhaul to his front bench.

"If you don't do this, your government's success is likely going to be compromised," said Sen. Tony Dean, who used to oversee Ontario's public service.

"It's important for everybody to be on the same page, and to understand what the desired deliverables are."

Shortly after taking office in 2015, Trudeau's government announced it would publish the lists of tasks given to each minister, known as mandate letters. The documents lay out the priorities for each federal minister, and signal to public servants the timeline or scope of policies the government wants to advance.

The last round of mandate letters was issued in December 2021, three months after the last federal election. This summer, Trudeau shuffled most of his cabinet, giving 30 ministers updated roles or brand-new postings that never existed before.

Defence Minister Bill Blair said last week that he hasn't received a new mandate letter since taking on the role July 26, and is acting on the list of commitments that Trudeau assigned to Blair's predecessor.

Last month, The Canadian Press asked International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen what was in his mandate letter for his new role. Hussen listed priorities, but his office did not say whether he'd actually received a mandate letter.

In an interview last week, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said she wasn't expecting an updated mandate letter, because she's held the same role since late 2021.

"It is at the prerogative of the prime minister that mandate letters change or shift," she said. "They're usually given to you when you're appointed at the beginning of a particular term; my mandate letter hasn't changed in two years."

Acadia University political scientist Alex Marland said mandate letters help clarify what a government wants to do outside of an election period or a new throne speech, for both the public and departmental staff.

"In absence of them, it means that it's probably harder for the government to advance its agendas," he said.

Mandate letters can help clarify what priorities the government is introducing, and whether the government sees commitments listed in previous letters as ongoing, accomplished or abandoned.

In the case of Blair, Trudeau has assigned the military new tasks in recent months, while asking it to cut $1 billion in spending.

"The further you get away from an election, the more things happen. And so when things change, then all of a sudden as a minister, what are your marching orders?" Marland said.

Dean and Marland both said they were perplexed that Citizens' Services Minister Terry Beech has no public listing of responsibilities, given that his is a new role that spans multiple departments.

At his July 26 swearing-in, Beech said his job would include more than just tasks falling under Employment and Social Development Canada, adding that the top civil servant for that department had handed him "a piece of paper with a whole bunch of bullet points on it."

Dean said mandate letters help set out priorities and identify who should be held accountable for the results.

"Especially these days with complexity around policy initiatives and development, there are very few things that stay within the boundaries of one ministry or department," he said.

"They're hugely important," he said of mandate letters. "I see them as a critical part of policy-making and policy-delivery implementation in government."

Dean argued that more-complex files shouldn't be rushed, while ministers who are continuing in their roles could get an updated priority list much sooner.

"If you've got a team and you want to have a successful project, you start by telling the team what success is going to look like," he said.

When asked to comment on mandate letters, the Conservatives instead lamented rising crime and high inflation, with spokesman Sebastian Skamski writing that Trudeau is "ignoring the very problems he himself created."

Marland noted that ministers themselves have said they're eager to receive their marching orders, and suggested that the Prime Minister's Office is still sorting out priorities instead of leaving it to ministers to define what would make their tenures successful.

He questioned why Trudeau didn't issue letters in late July, given that he has full control over when his cabinet is shuffled.

"That's a problem, if the minister is looking for guidance," Marland said.

"The reality is that they've obviously made a decision that getting the mandate letters together is not an urgent priority. On the other hand, the Trudeau government has never been very fast on a lot of things," he said, arguing it stems from both a bottleneck and a focus on message strategy.

The Prime Minister's Office has been asked to comment.

Woman, 79, killed at Quebec seniors residence; suspect, 81, under watch in hospital

Senior killed at residence

A 79-year-old woman was killed over the weekend at her seniors residence, and an 81-year-old man found unconscious in her room is a suspect in her death, police north of Montreal said Monday.

Capt. Vincent Charbonneau with the police for Terrebonne, Que., said the case is being investigated as a homicide, but he would not say how the woman died.

Police were called to the residence after two people were found unconscious in a unit at about 6 p.m. on Saturday. A staff member had called 911.

The woman's death was declared at the scene, and the 81-year-old was transported to hospital.

Charbonneau said the man did not live at the residence, but the officer would not divulge the link between the two.

The man, who was unconscious but stable on Monday, was under police surveillance in hospital.

Police had said the two were found in a room in Maison l’étincelle, a private residence that offers specialized care for people with Alzheimer's disease and other neurocognitive disorders. But they later clarified that the man and woman were found at Ressource de Lanaudière, a public health facility that shares space with Maison l’étincelle.

The local health authority said it had arranged for "support measures" to be offered to the care home, but did not comment further.

Diwali fireworks advisory issued despite warnings it might be discriminatory: emails

Diwali fireworks warning

At least two Environment Canada meteorologists warned that linking Diwali fireworks to air pollution in an air quality advisory could be perceived as discriminatory, internal emails show, but the advisory was still published.

Their warnings appeared well-founded. So many complaints had poured in by the end of the day that the department reissued the advisory without mentioning Diwali and publicly apologized.

A new edict was issued that air quality warnings should make no reference to specific events.

"Please stick to meteorological explanations," reads an internal communication to meteorologists and other Environment and Climate Change Canada staff.

"Lessons learned," reads a response from one staff member.

Those communications, as well as hundreds of emails and other direct messages, are contained in more than 400 pages of documents obtained by The Canadian Press through an access-to-information request.

The documents show the genesis of the decision to issue the advisory in the first place, the warnings about mentioning Diwali in the days leading up to the event and the aftermath and fallout within the department.

It all began following Diwali in November 2021, when an air quality monitor picked up a small spike in air pollution in parts of the Greater Toronto Area, including Brampton and Mississauga. The increase moved the air quality index from low risk to moderate risk for about four hours.

Staff traced the spike to local fireworks set off to celebrate Diwali, a festival of lights celebrated each fall.

"You might find this particularly interesting," one associate director at Environment Canada wrote in an email the next day. "Fireworks the cause of the spike."

It was at that time that the officials discussed monitoring Diwali and decided it would likely be wise to send out an air quality warning before the following year's festival.

A lack of knowledge about Diwali among the staff was clear. One person wrote that based on information provided by another colleague, "this Diwali event happens every year."

Diwali is celebrated by Hindus as well as some Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. The date, based on a lunar calendar, usually falls between mid-October and mid-November each year.

Four days before Diwali in October 2022, discussions began anew about issuing a warning.

At least two meteorologists raised concerns, particularly about the fact warnings hadn't been issued previously for Canada Day fireworks.

One of them suggested getting the communications department involved before proceeding. Another said targeting specific areas could be seen as "discriminatory," and any decision to issue a warning must be based on meteorological conditions, not just the fact Diwali was happening.

"Canada Day would be a more logical place to start" issuing air quality warnings linked to fireworks, he said, rather than targeting one area for one holiday.

He was shot down by one of his colleagues, who insisted based on her anecdotal experience that Canada Day fireworks don't compare to the number and type that are set off for Diwali.

"The amount of fireworks on the night of Diwali is easily 50 times that of any other holiday I've experienced including Canada (Day) and I'm not really exaggerating," she said.

The protocol established for the warning could be adapted for other fireworks events, but last year's Diwali was the first time a warning was issued.

It went out the morning of Oct. 24, 2022, and the backlash was swift. By the end of the day, Environment Canada's inquiry line had received 60 formal complaints, calling it "racist", "shameful" and "Eurocentric."

More poured in through other avenues, including via The Weather Network, which sent out the alert via its mobile app.

"I am a Hindu who recognizes Diwali as an important religious event and am concerned that this message may cause citizens who do not celebrate Diwali to target Hindus for polluting the air around them," one person wrote.

Several others questioned why such warnings were not issued on Canada Day, too.

Environment Canada staff then scrambled to respond, calling in communications experts and senior managers to help.

In addition to issuing a new advisory without mentioning Diwali or fireworks, it was decided that in the future, only meteorological conditions should be mentioned in any warnings.

One air quality expert weighed in to explain that there are meteorological reasons why fireworks in the fall — for Diwali or otherwise — would cause more air pollution than those fired up in the late spring or summer months.

Largely, that is because of what is known as a "temperature inversion," in which the surface air is actually colder than the air above it.

That phenomenon is common in the fall, particularly after sunsets, which occur much earlier in October than they do in July. That phenomenon also tends to trap air pollution lower to the ground, causing the spike in air quality readings.

While many staff involved in the fallout appeared to agree that the warning mentioning Diwali should not have been issued, others defended the plan.

Several pointed out that the air quality did spike that day in Brampton, rising exponentially to 25 times the normal level by midnight, and five times the previous record that had been set in 2013. It returned to low risk levels by about 3 p.m. the following day.

"In this world of political correctness in which we live....I wanted to draw your attention to the numbers from last night," one staff member wrote. "Off the charts!"

In an internal communication about that spike written on Oct. 25 last year, Environment Canada said meteorological conditions had created "a perfect setup" for the fireworks to cause a spike in air pollution, with a "very strong inversion and light winds."

Still, some staff suggested pushing back against criticism by collecting data on the number of people hospitalized as a result of the air quality issue. And at least one person said that at the end of the day, holiday or not, their job was to monitor for air pollution and warn the public when it's bad.

A look at how to avoid a bear encounter after fatal attack in Banff National Park

How to avoid bears

A couple and their dog were killed on the weekend in a grizzly bear attack in the wilderness of Banff National Park in Alberta. Here's a look at how to avoid an encounter in bear country:

Make noise: Call out, clap, sing or talk loudly near streams, dense forest or berry patches, on windy days or in areas of low visibility.

Watch for fresh bear signs: Tracks, droppings, diggings, torn-up logs, turned-over rocks or a large dead animal could all be signs that a bear has been in the area. Leave the area.

Keep your dog on a leash or leave it at home: Dogs can provoke defensive behaviour in bears.

Travel in groups: Research has shown groups of four or more are less likely to have a serious bear encounter.

Stay on the trails: Use officially marked trails and travel during daylight hours.

Pay attention to your surroundings: Do not wear headphones or earbuds on the trails. 

Carry bear spray and know how to use it: Bear spray can be effective with some bears when used properly. Keep your backpack, poles and other equipment that could provide protection.

Try to stay calm if you do encounter a bear: Screams or sudden movements can trigger an attack. Don't run. Pick up small children and stay in a group. Speak to the bear calmly and firmly. Back away slowly.

Source: Parks Canada/Alberta Parks

Porsche SUV with two-month-old puppy inside stolen at gunpoint: Toronto police

Gunman steals Porsche, pup

Toronto police are seeking help in their search for a two-month-old puppy that was stolen during a gunpoint carjacking of a luxury vehicle.

Police say the black Rottweiler-Pitbull mix named Bella was in the back seat of a 2021 black Porsche Cayenne SUV that was taken from the driver at gunpoint on Sunday morning. 

They say the driver was leaving the Porsche when the suspect approached with a gun. 

Police say the suspect then demanded the keys and fled in the vehicle, while the puppy was inside. 

Police are asking anyone who witnessed the carjacking or has video from the area to contact them or Crime Stoppers. 

They say anyone who spots the vehicle should not approach it and instead call 911 immediately. 

House prepares to vote on new Speaker in rare mid-session election as MPs vie for job

Speaker race heats up

The House of Commons will vote for a new Speaker Tuesday in a rare mid-session election.

Steven Chaplin, a fellow at the University of Ottawa's Public Law Centre, says this is only the third time in Canadian history that a Speaker didn't complete their full term.

Anthony Rota resigned from the position last week amid controversy after he invited parliamentarians, during a visit by Ukraine's president, to applaud a veteran who served in a Nazi unit in the Second World War.

The longest-serving MP in the House, a Bloc Québécois representative, was put in as an interim Speaker — a move Chaplin says is a first in Canada's history, but one that signals the House aims to rise above partisanship.

All members of Parliament, except for party leaders and ministers, can put themselves on the ballot for the Speaker role, and they have until today to take their names off the list before a vote on Tuesday.

A handful of Conservative, Liberal and NDP MPs, along with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, have indicated they want the role, which comes with a pay raise and an official residence.

Couple killed by bear in Banff National Park experienced in outdoors: family friend

Bear victims knew outdoors

A bear expert who's a family friend of one of two people killed by a grizzly bear in Banff National Park says the couple was experienced in the outdoors and could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Kim Titchener, who has a company called Bear Safety and More, says both the couple and their dog died in the backcountry on the weekend.

Parks Canada has said in a statement that its dispatchers received an alert around 8 p.m. Friday from an inReach GPS device about a bear attack west of Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, which is about 200 kilometres northwest of Calgary.

The federal agency immediately sent its Wildlife Human Attack Response Team to the area by ground because it could not use a helicopter due to weather conditions in the mountains.

It says the team arrived around 1 a.m. Saturday and found two people dead.

Parks Canada says the team encountered a grizzly bear displaying aggressive behaviour and killed the bear to further protect the public.

The Red Deer and Panther valleys from the Snow Creek summit east to the national park boundary, and north to Shale Pass is closed as a safety precaution until further notice.

Banff National Park, which is Canada's first and busiest national park, is home to both grizzly and black bears.

Military withdraws final conduct charge against Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan

Military withdraws charge

Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan wiped away tears this morning as military prosecutors asked the judge in his court martial to withdraw the case against him.

Whelan had pleaded not guilty to one count of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline for changing a performance report in 2011.

The military alleged he gave the complainant in the case, a woman who was under his command at the time, a better score to prevent her from telling senior commanders about flirtatious emails Whelan had sent her before they worked together.

Prosecutors dropped a different charge at the beginning of the court martial last week related to what the military called an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.

This morning, prosecutors asked the military judge, Cmdr. Martin Pelletier, to withdraw the remaining charge, based on "an assessment of the evidence."

Pelletier ruled on Friday that the emails at the centre of the case could not be admitted as evidence for the prosecution.

Prosecutors declined an interview request this morning.

Imperial, Alberta regulator knew for years about tailings seepage at mine: documents

Leakage known for years

Documents filed by Imperial Oil Ltd. show the company and Alberta's energy regulator knew the Kearl oilsands mine was seeping tailings into groundwater years before a pool of contaminated fluid was reported on the surface, alarming area First Nations and triggering three investigations.

"They knew there was seepage to groundwater," said Mandy Olsgard, an environmental toxicologist who has consulted for area First Nations.

"The (Alberta Energy Regulator) and Imperial decided not to notify the public and just manage it internally."

Imperial said in a statement that seepage was anticipated in Kearl's original design. Spokeswoman Lisa Schmidt said the company has kept both the regulator and area communities informed.

"We have been working to address the areas of shallow seepage from our operating lease area," she said. "We recognize there are concerns regarding water quality, and we take this very seriously."

Alberta Energy Regulator spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said the agency is committed to strong oversight of the Kearl site.

"It is of upmost priority that downstream water continues to remain safe, and any potential impacts to the public are both mitigated and communicated transparently," she said in an email.

"During this period, there were no signs that indicated the system was not functioning according to its intended design."

Olsgard points to groundwater monitoring reports filed by Imperial to the regulator. The 2020 and 2021 documents acknowledge tailings were seeping from the ponds that were supposed to contain them. The tailings were detected at monitoring wells within the mine's lease area, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. 

Earlier studies suggest those results could have been influenced by natural variation or chemical processes in the soil. The 2021 document says little room for doubt remained.

"(Process affected water) seepage, or potential early arrival of (such water), was reported at 11 monitoring locations in 2021, indicated by trends and/or (control objective) exceedances in multiple (key indicator parameters)," it says.

Substances found at concentrations above desired limits included naphthenic acids, dissolved solids and sulphates — a common proxy for hydrocarbon residue. Oilsands tailings are considered toxic to fish and other wildlife.

In May 2022, the seepage was reported to First Nations and communities as discoloured water pooling on the surface. They received little information after that until last February, when the regulator issued environmental protection orders against Imperial — and then only after 5.3 million litres of contaminated wastewater escaped from a holding pond.

Olsgard said the regulator had reports of seepage as early as 2019. Imperial had instituted a "seepage interception system" in 2015.

Stewart acknowledged seepage had been confirmed. 

"Imperial initiated, and (the regulator) confirmed, mitigation activities that included activation of the (seepage interception system) and adding more pumping wells," she said.

Four pumping wells activated in 2021 to contain the seepage "diverted" more than a billion litres of groundwater, says the report. After that, key parameters dropped or stabilized at "most" locations.

"These original interception pumping wells were first activated in early 2021 in response to the detection of process affected water above control objectives, in accordance with approved operating procedures," Schmidt said.

"Imperial shared this information with the (regulator) and communities in early 2021 and has provided annual updates."

Groundwater in the area moves at between three and 27 metres a year. Some evidence suggests tailings have seeped off the lease.

Data filed to the Oilsands Monitoring Program shows sulphates at a sampling station in the Muskeg River began climbing drastically in March 2022. Within a year, they were 18 times higher than the 2021 average. 

That sampling station is south of the Kearl lease. The releases that trigged the protection order were on the north side. 

Schmidt said those readings were unrelated to tailings. 

Stewart said Imperial has increased its monitoring frequency and is working to understand the extent of the release.

The seepage at Kearl continues. Data posted on the regulator's website shows several test wells continue to show hydrocarbon levels in surface water that exceed provincial environmental guidelines. 

"There is no indication of adverse impacts to wildlife or fish populations in nearby river systems or risks to drinking water for local communities," Schmidt said.

Over the summer, Imperial expanded Kearl's seepage interception with additional pumps and drainage structures. Monitoring continues. 

“The (regulator) did not stop the seepage in 2022 and they didn’t acknowledge it since 2019," Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro said in a statement. 

"They say they have contained the seepage. They have not. The fact that they did not tell us about the seepage for nine months is the tip of the iceberg."

Both the Mikisew and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation use the area outside the mine lease for traditional activities such as hunting and gathering. Both nations are downstream of the mine and say they fear for their water quality.

On Wednesday, the regulator's board released a third-party report by Deloitte into how the agency handled communications around the releases. Although it found the regulator followed its rules, it concluded those rules were outdated, vague and had significant gaps.

Olsgard said Deloitte's investigation was specifically limited to events occurring after May 2022.

"They were not being given the authority to go back to 2019, when I think the groundwater was being contaminated."

Imperial's actions are also being probed by regulator staff as well as federal investigators. 

Tuccaro said the regulator has denied Mikisew's request for a stop-work order at Kearl. He called that a double standard.

“The Alberta Utilities Commission and the Alberta government had no problem instituting a moratorium on renewable energy projects, but they won’t take simple regulatory measures in the face of a known human and environmental health problem.”

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has called for the federal government to step in.

"We do not believe that the Kearl leak was an isolated incident, and we do not believe the regulator would inform the public if another incident occurred," the band said in a statement.

The First Nation also has called for a full technical audit of oilsands tailings facilities as well as a long-term study of health impacts. 

Schmidt said Imperial acknowledges shortcomings.

"We recognize that our communication in the past has not met communities’ expectations and we are working with communities to improve our communications."

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