'We're acknowledging it' Grassy Narrows chief says of Trudeau's apology over remarks to protester
Rudy Turtle says his community 'not too impressed' by prime minister's conduct during fundraiser
The chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation says it "wasn't very wise" for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to acknowledge a woman advocating on behalf of his community during a Liberal Party fundraiser by thanking her for her "donation" while she was being kicked out.
Rudy Turtle said he's again calling on Trudeau to visit his community, located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora in northwestern Ontario, to see first-hand the effects that decades of exposure to mercury are having on the people. Elevated levels of the toxic element have remained in the English-Wabigoon River system since Reed Paper, former owners of the mill in Dryden, dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the water in the 1960s and early 1970s.
"We've invited him to the community and he's always brushed it aside," Turtle said of letters leadership has sent to the Prime Minister. "I would like to see him come to Grassy and meet the people of Grassy Narrows, not just the chief and council, but the people themselves."
"Just to get a handle on what mercury's doing to our people."
The community is frustrated, Turtle said, by how long the process is taking to break ground on a promised specialized mercury treatment facility so residents don't have to travel hundreds of kilometres to hospitals in Kenora, Winnipeg or Thunder Bay.
Grassy Narrows had hoped to start construction in the spring, but leaders and advocates are saying that money from Ottawa isn't flowing to proceed to the project's next step. Indigenous Services Canada said it is "actively engaged" with the community, the province and other "technical experts" to establish what services the facility will be responsible for and how they will fit into the building design.
The community's frustration was magnified by Trudeau's comments Wednesday at a Liberal Party fundraising event in Toronto where a protester unfurled a banner in front of the Prime Minister while he was taking the stage while saying that "people in Grassy Narrows are suffering from mercury poisoning, you committed to addressing this crisis."
She was physically removed from the room while Trudeau said "thank you very much for your donation tonight, I really appreciate it." The prime minister apologized Thursday morning, saying his comments "lacked respect."
Turtle said the community is "acknowledging" that apology "but we're not too impressed, let's put it that way."
The incident was captured on video by Mark Calzavara, a regional organizer with the Council of Canadians. He said that he and the woman in the video did donate in order to be able to enter the room.
Trudeau said on Thursday that their money would be refunded.
That's why Turtle said he wants to see money for the treatment facility locked into a trust, similar to what the Ontario government did in 2017 with $85 million committed to go toward remediation of the English-Wabigoon River system.
"It's about holding Mister Trudeau ... and the Liberal Party to account, they committed to building the mercury treatment centre," Calzavara said.
Those sentiments were echoed by Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh, the grand chief of Grand Council Treaty 3, of which Grassy Narrows is a member.
"Nothing has been done and our people continue to suffer. We want to see action now," Kavanaugh was quoted as saying in an emailed statement.
"It's nothing more than a delay tactic on [the government's] part," Turtle said of the time it's taking. "That's what we're not happy about."
With files from Jody Porter