Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle says he thinks most Indigenous people have lost confidence in Justin Trudeau and is calling on the Prime Minister to back up this week’s apology by visiting his community to see the effects of mercury poisoning first hand.
Mr. Turtle said the Prime Minister’s dismissive remarks to protesters, Ottawa’s treatment of former minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and a general sense of inaction on Indigenous issues are producing widespread disappointment with the Liberal government.
“Looking at the whole picture … I would say that the Prime Minister has lost confidence with a majority of the native people,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail Friday.
Mr. Turtle said the Prime Minister’s reaction to the protesters this week “felt like an insult” and he urged Mr. Trudeau to do more than apologize.
“We acknowledge the apology, but that’s about it. I guess I would say actions speak louder than words. I’ve been asking him to come to Grassy Narrows to visit our community and he’s always brushed it aside, so I guess if he started showing some action, then I would be more impressed," he said.
Mr. Turtle raised the issue of Ms. Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney-general who resigned from cabinet in February, and has accused the Prime Minister’s Office of applying inappropriate pressure in relation to a criminal prosecution. Ms. Wilson-Raybould, a former regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, also expressed frustration last fall with her government’s lack of progress on Indigenous files.
“It’s just the way he handled it," Mr. Turtle said. “In terms of reconciliation, [Mr. Trudeau] should have done his best to accommodate her.”
Francis Kavanaugh, Grand Chief of Grand Council Treaty #3, which includes Grassy Narrows and 27 other First Nations, said Mr. Trudeau hasn’t lived up to the expectations set by the Liberals in 2015.
“I’m just very, very disappointed. I had high hopes when he first became the Prime Minister. He ran on a platform of reconciliation – he was going to fix this, he was going to fix that – and I’m just starting to think that he’s a liar,” he said Friday in a phone interview.
Health problems facing residents of Grassy Narrows and neighbouring Wabaseemoong in northwestern Ontario were the focus of a protest that disrupted a speech Mr. Trudeau was delivering Wednesday evening in Toronto at a Liberal Party fundraising event.
When two protesters in the room shouted out that the people of Grassy Narrows are suffering from mercury poisoning and that his government had promised to do something, Mr. Trudeau dismissed them.
“I really appreciate the donation to the Liberal Party of Canada,” Mr. Trudeau replied as the first of the two protesters was escorted away. The audience of donors who contributed $1,500 to the party cheered.
Video of Mr. Trudeau’s response spread quickly online, prompting widespread condemnation from First Nations leaders and others.
Mr. Trudeau apologized Thursday morning in Halifax, saying he had showed “a lack of respect.”
Members of both communities have long experienced health problems linked to toxins released into the river system in the 1960s by a paper mill in Dryden, Ont. The contamination affected the local fish population − a regular source of food and commerce. The waters remain contaminated decades later.
Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong are waiting on the federal and Ontario governments to deliver on two key promises that were both made in 2017: a provincial pledge to clean up the contamination and a federal promise to build a new health facility to treat patients affected by mercury.
The Ontario Liberal government’s 2017 announcement promised to place $85-million in a trust fund to pay for cleaning up the mercury contamination in the region. A spokesperson for the current Progressive Conservative government said officials continue to work with the communities on how to spend the money set aside for remediation. However, no firm project plans have been announced.
From the federal government, then-Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott promised in November, 2017, that a specialized health facility would be built in the area to serve people affected by mercury poisoning.
The federal government is assuming responsibility for building a facility, but is looking for provincial help in areas such as health-care staffing.
Indigenous Services Canada received a draft feasibility study for the treatment centre on Nov. 28, 2018, which covered issues such as location, design and estimated operational costs.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan said in a statement that the department continues to work with the communities and the province on plans.
“I would be pleased to meet with Chief Turtle to determine how we can continue moving this critical work forward," he said. "It is imperative that we all work together – the federal government, the province, and community – to ensure that the people of Grassy Narrows get the supports they need.”