They spent six weeks running against each other in Northern Ontario, but Conservative Eric Melillo and the NDP’s Rudy Turtle say they want to work together to urge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make good on his government’s promise to build a medical-treatment facility for Grassy Narrows First Nation.
Regardless of party stripe, the situation in Grassy Narrows is “inexcusable,” Mr. Melillo, who won the Kenora seat in the Oct. 21 election, told The Globe and Mail on Monday. He pledged to work diligently to deliver for the First Nation, led by Mr. Turtle, as well as other communities in the riding.
“I’m hoping to work with Chief Turtle, hoping to work across party lines to be able to hold Justin Trudeau to account and make sure that he can’t ignore this issue any longer,” Mr. Melillo said in an interview.
Grassy Narrows has garnered national attention as it grapples with the effects of the 1960s mercury contamination of the English-Wabigoon River system. Advocates have intensely lobbied for the construction of a facility to help community members access medical treatments for debilitating symptoms including problems with cognitive function, speech and vision.
The hope is the centre could offer treatment at home in the community, rather than to force residents to seek help in cities such as Thunder Bay.
For its part, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government said during the campaign it remains “steadfast” in its commitment to build the facility and that technical teams have discussed plans on how to proceed.
Residents of Grassy Narrows have raised concern, however, about the rate of progress.
“Almost two years ago, Canada promised my dad that it would build a place where our suffering people could live and be taken care of," said Leroy Fobister, the eldest child of former chief Simon Fobister, who died in August. His family said mercury contributed to his death. "But not even one brick has been laid and so my dad had to die far from home in a hospital in Thunder Bay.”
In a separate interview, Mr. Turtle said Monday he was disappointed the New Democrats were not able to pick up the Kenora seat from Liberal Bob Nault, who also ran in this election, but he went to congratulate Mr. Melillo after the result.
In July, Mr. Turtle announced he would run for the NDP because of the Trudeau government’s “inaction” on the facility, promised by then-Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott in late 2017. Ms. Philpott also ran in this election as an Independent but lost in the riding of Markham–Stouffville.
The chief said Monday that after the election, he and Mr. Melillo discussed the situation in the Northern Ontario community, which also received attention during the campaign and leaders’ debates.
“He asked me how he could help,” Mr. Turtle said of the Tuesday meeting. “I just told him about the mercury treatment centre and the issue of mercury in our community.”
Mr. Turtle added it was too early to tell whether Mr. Melillo will be successful in his push to get the Trudeau government to move ahead on the treatment facility.
“I don’t know how tough he’s going to be," he said.
Mr. Melillo, a 21-year-old economics graduate from Lakehead University, said Monday he knocked on more than 10,000 doors during the campaign, adding he was very confident his party would have a strong showing while he acknowledged the riding is often a tight three-way race.
As for his young age, Mr. Melillo acknowledged he’s heard it pointed out in both a negative and positive light.
“At the end of the day, I just trust that people in my riding and the people across Canada are going to judge me based on the content of my character and the strength of representation they feel I bring to the House of Commons."