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Celebrating one year of The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau

In this week's newsletter, we look back on a year of breaking stories, filing FOIs and sharing immersive features about the natural world in Ontario

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Glenn Brooks and Susan Rosebrugh in their yard, which backs onto a former General Motors site
This week we published a bombshell of a story about a leaky problem — a story that’s been in the works for five months, ever since reporter Ashley Okwuosa came across a Facebook post.

It was by St. Catharines resident Glenn Brooks, who lives with his partner, Susan Rosebrugh, in a home backing onto a former General Motors facility in Ontario’s Niagara region. The automaker sold the site to developer Bayshore Groups in 2014, which began demolition to build a multi-use complex, then abruptly stopped in 2018, leaving the site full of debris and motor oil. 

In 2021, Brooks was diagnosed with breast cancer, even though he has no genetic markers for the disease, which is a rarity among cisgender men. He believes that toxins on the site affected his health. 

“Glenn Brooks had written a heartfelt letter about his cancer diagnosis, and I had come across it when doing some research during the provincial election,” Ashley says. “He talked about the toll the cancer had taken on him and his family, and there were so many responses from residents not only offering comfort but complaining about the situation at the site and wondering what they might have been exposed to and what the government was doing about it.” 

“It was hearing and seeing how big of an issue this seemed to be for residents in the area that made me want to look into this story.”

And was it ever a story worth looking into: 1,700 pages of newly released documents reveal the city and province were aware of possible polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) leaks two years before informing the public. Oh, and did we mention the site still hasn’t been cleaned up? Here’s a glimpse at how things have unfolded:

Those bombshell details? They were contained inside documents that a citizens’ group acquired just as we were on the verge of publishing Ashley’s story. So I topped up Ashley’s freelance fee as much as I could, and Ashley took on the task of reading through those 1,700 pages. I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and she wouldn’t have been able to listen to the residents of St. Catharines, without the support of our members. They fund our digging, and allow us to share these urgent stories for all to read for free. 

I asked Ashley if residents were tired of telling their stories, after explaining their situation to governments and local media for years. “Not at all,” she says. 

“Susan told photographer Ramona Leitao and I that having us there, listening to her, felt like someone actually cared. I think she felt that she had been screaming into a void for a long time, so she was touched that someone wanted to listen to what she had to say.”

Despite Ontario’s findings, including the presence of chemicals associated with increased incidences of breast cancer at levels above provincial goals, the ministry stated in the report that Niagara Region public health believed there was no increased risk of adverse health to residents living in the vicinity of the former General Motors plant and had not detected any unusual health outcomes in the vicinity. 

For its part, General Motors told The Narwhal in a statement that when it sold the property to Bayshore in 2014, “the sale agreement required the new owners to meet environmental and other requirements.” Bayshore did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

We’ll be watching to see what comes next as residents continue to wait for the site to be cleaned up.

Take care and leak us your secrets,

Denise Balkissoon
Ontario bureau chief


Our Ontario Narwhals turn 1!

We’ve been digging for stories in Canada’s most populous province for a whole year — happy birthday to us! It’s been 365 + 1 days since reporters Fatima Syed and Emma McIntosh set out with me to tell the province’s climate and environment stories.

A quick recap, if you need it: Fatima broke the story of Koch Industries suing Canada for Doug Ford’s cancellation of cap-and-trade; told us about the fate of endangered turtles and piping plovers; and put together this thorough, handy overview of what’s up with Ontario’s energy grid

Emma can’t stop filing freedom of information requests, especially about Highway 413; is all over what’s going on in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire peatlands; and is keeping an eye on how development could eat up southern Ontario farmland. She also got a little obsessed with Lake Superior caribou recently. 

And neither of them is done yet. 

Thank you so much to all of you who have supported the Ontario team this past year. We are just 68 members away from reaching our September membership goal, so if you've appreciated the work of our Ontario team, please consider joining us today. 


The Narwhal in the world

Remember that immersive, data-driven feature we published back in March on the Indigenous guardians who patrol thousands upon thousands of square kilometres of B.C.’s central coast? Well, we’re chuffed to share that it’s been nominated for Excellence in Multimedia Journalism at the Webster Awards!

The piece, by longtime Narwhal contributor Jimmy Thomson, was in the works for more than two years. And when it came time to publish, we went all out: interactive maps, videos, satellite imagery, you name it. At the heart of it all was a desire to help bring readers as close to being there as possible, to get a glimpse at the scale and scope of the guardians’ work.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t thank our donors and the fine folks at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Humber College’s StoryLab for their support to help make the story happen. And to all of you for reading and sharing!


This week in The Narwhal

Landscape photo of the Squamish estuary
Inside a 50-year journey to reopen the ‘lungs’ of the Squamish River
By Stephanie Wood
A company built a spit that blocked salmon from accessing crucial habitat — then it left. Decades later, the Squamish Nation, local environmentalists and the federal government have worked together to finally break open the barrier and reconnect a fractured estuary.

A man walks across the tracks of the railway corridor
Nature trail or needed transit? Ontario’s Peel Region decides the future of an old railway line
By Fatima Syed
A Suncor refinery near Edmonton at night
‘An edifice of lies’: how climate denial and religion kickstarted Alberta’s oilsands
By Carl Meyer

Photo of the West Coast Trail
‘It’s a part of my being’: West Coast Trail guardians keep cultural history at the forefront
By Jolene Rudisuela


What we’re reading

Rare lichen enlisted in old-growth logging battle
‘We will all die if we continue like this’: Indigenous people push UN for climate justice
When it’s your birthday and everyone wants a piece of you. Tell your friends to jump on board.
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