Bill Fobister Sr.'s voice cracked Tuesday as he clung to a podium and tried to steady himself with weakened limbs – the result, he says, of mercury contamination from Grassy Narrows First Nation.
Mr. Fobister, a 73-year-old elder from the northern Ontario community, joined Indigenous leaders in Ottawa as they urged the Liberal government to make good on a two-year-old promise to build a treatment facility for community members seeking help with the physical impact of mercury poisoning.
As the Liberal minority government prepares for Thursday’s opening of Parliament, Ottawa is facing renewed calls to ensure the facility is built immediately, including from Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
In 2017, then-Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott promised to build a mercury treatment home in response to community advocacy.
Mr. Fobister, who has suffered from the symptoms of mercury contamination since the 1990s, said he has witnessed several of relatives go through the same pain. Some are no longer alive, he added.
Mr. Fobister is the cousin of the late Simon Fobister, the former chief of Grassy Narrows who was a vocal advocate for the creation of the mercury home.
Simon died this summer in Thunder Bay despite fighting for services to be made available in the community.
“When you have mercury, you have it for life,” Bill Fobister said, adding he struggles with symptoms including problems with his nerves, speech, sense of taste and vision.
The issue of mercury contamination in Grassy has drastically affected both older and younger generations, Mr. Bellegarde said.
Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle has been clear on what the community wants, Mr. Bellegarde said, saying his organization will do all it can to ensure that happens.
Rodney Bruce, a 25-year-old representing youth from his community, said that simply talking about the situation in Grassy Narrows makes his voice “shake" because it is frustrating that the community has fought for appropriate compensation for decades.
“I’m here to say that there has been an opportunity to build a mercury home,” Mr. Bruce said.
“Why is it taking so long?"
The Trudeau government is dragging its feet on building the facility, Mr. Singh said.
“We’ve seen the Prime Minister move very quickly when it is is a priority,” he said. “The delay must end. ... This needs to get done."
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller’s office said Tuesday the federal government remains committed to building the facility as well as meeting the specific health needs in the community.
“To be clear, funding is not an obstacle in these discussions,” the office said in a statement. "Funding will reflect the agreed upon final design that best meets the needs of community members.”
Mr. Miller told reporters at a special chiefs gathering of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa that he intends to meet with Mr. Turtle on Wednesday.
Mr. Turtle also urged the Liberal government to move ahead on construction of the facility on Tuesday but Mr. Miller said he would not comment on the chief’s remarks, out of respect, until after their meeting.
The creation of the mercury home would simply allow sick community members to be close to their families for the remainder of their lives, Mr. Fobister said.