Thunder Bay

Indigenous Services Minister unexpectedly leaves Grassy Narrows without agreement on mercury health facility

Canada's Indigenous services minister didn't get the signatures he was expecting on Wednesday from the leadership of Grassy Narrows First Nation after a visit to the northwestern Ontario community that continues to live with the effects of mercury contamination brought on by industrial dumping upstream about 50 years ago.

Chief Rudy Turtle didn't sign agreement Wednesday when minister Seamus O'Regan visited

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan visited Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario on May 29. He didn't get the signatures from the community's leadership he was expecting. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's Indigenous services minister didn't get the signatures he was expecting on Wednesday from the leadership of Grassy Narrows First Nation after a visit to the northwestern Ontario community that continues to live with the effects of mercury contamination brought on by industrial dumping upstream about 50 years ago.

Federal officials said the visit by Seamus O'Regan to the First Nation about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora, was so that the minister and Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle could sign a memorandum of agreement that would "[outline] a path forward" to deal with the "long-term health needs of the community, which has been impacted by exposure to mercury."

But after about a four-and-a half hour meeting, that signing didn't happen.

"We're still negotiating and we made a little progress, but still a ways to go," Turtle said. "It's taking too long."

"Obviously, I'm disappointed that we didn't sign an agreement," O'Regan said in an emailed statement to CBC News. "But we've made progress today, and Chief Turtle and I are committed to getting this done."

"The people of Grassy Narrows have suffered for over 50 years. We're working in close partnership in the best interest of the community. And we're committed to getting this right."
Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle says the federal government's proposal for a mercury treatment facility falls short and he didn't sign on Wednesday. He says the two sides are still negotiating. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Advocates say the community is one of Canada's worst environmental disasters, with studies linking the historical dumping of 9,000 kilograms of mercury-contaminated effluent by former owners of the mill in Dryden into the English-Wabigoon River system throughout most of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, to the comparatively poor health of Grassy Narrows residents.

The federal announcement was light on details but it did say that Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan would publicly sign the memorandum alongside Chief Rudy Turtle at 12:15 p.m., CT at the community's Sakatcheway Anishinabe School. Officials said that the minister was expected to arrive in Grassy Narrows at 11:30 a.m.

The minister was delayed in arriving in Grassy Narrows.

Turtle said the agreement that O'Regan brought to the community fell short in the scope of what services would be provided in the proposed mercury treatment facility, which is why he didn't sign.

"We weren't 100 per cent satisfied with the plan that they put forward," Turtle said. "It wasn't enough."

The First Nation along with advocates for the community have been pushing Ottawa to follow through on a promise by former Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott in 2017, when she committed to building a specialized healthcare facility on-reserve to treat those suffering from the effects of prolonged mercury exposure.

Prior to leaving for Grassy Narrows, O'Regan told reporters in Ottawa that a lot of progress on the mercury treatment facility has been made in the past several weeks. He added that he was expecting his trip to result in a "very positive announcement."

Turtle has said he and the community are frustrated by how long it's taking to break ground on the treatment facility, noting that they had hoped to have shovels in the ground this spring.
Grassy Narrows First Nation is located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora, Ont. (CBC)

A letter from the First Nation dated March 29 to federal officials, including O'Regan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett raised the concern that "with the federal elections looming, the entire project is at risk."

The letter called for $88.7 million to be locked in a trust for the capital, operating and maintenance costs for the treatment facility over a 30-year span, similar to the former provincial government setting $85 million aside to be used for the remediation of the contaminated river.

The proposed agreement didn't include the trust, Turtle said, but added that O'Regan, at the end of the meeting, told him that Ottawa would look into it. Turtle added that the two sides are still talking and he expects to speak with the minister later this week.

Turtle said the community is also expecting to receive a revised proposal from Indigenous Services Canada before Friday.

"The things we're asking for are not unrealistic," he said. "They could do it if the will to do it was there."

With files from Chris Rands and Jody Porter

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