Grassy Narrows chief to run for NDP in federal election

The chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation, Rudy Turtle, is one of a growing number of Indigenous candidates the NDP is running in this fall's federal election in an attempt to attract disaffected voters away from the Liberals.

Chief Rudy Turtle's decision follows a lack of progress on Ottawa's response to mercury contamination

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, right, and Chief Rudy Turtle of the Grassy Narrows First Nation listen to questions during a press conference on the lawn of Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, July 29, 2019. (Canadian Press/Justin Tang)

The chief of a northern Ontario First Nation grappling with mercury contamination is announcing his bid today to run for the NDP in the riding of Kenora in this fall's federal election, citing his growing disappointment with the Liberal government.

For half a century after the former owners of a mill in Dryden dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the river system, the people of Grassy Narrows have suffered the effects of mercury poisoning. The toxic chemical contaminated the water and fish in the area, located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora.

Rudy Turtle, chief of Grassy Narrows, said he believed his community's concerns would finally be dealt with when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government came to power in 2015. But four years later, Turtle still hasn't signed an agreement with Ottawa to deal with long-term health needs of the community, and there is no on-reserve health centre dedicated to deal with the effects of mercury poisoning.

"They failed to deliver on their promises," Turtle said.

"He [Trudeau] said he was going to handle outstanding issues and get things done for the people. I'm not saying he didn't try. He did try, but it's not good enough."


Turtle's move comes after he publicly criticized Trudeau for dismissing a Grassy Narrows protester with the quip, "Thank you for your donation," during a fundraising event. Trudeau later apologized, but Turtle has not accepted his apology.

Turtle said he was approached by the NDP in June following a failed visit by Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan, who was expected to sign a memorandum agreement with Grassy Narrows on May 28 but left without a deal.

The paper mill in Dryden, Ont., is located upstream from Grassy Narrows. The former owners of the mill dumped 10 tonnes of mercury in the 1960s and early 1970s.

"Mr. Trudeau had a lot of great announcements, a lot of great words, but failed on actions and in fact broke many promises, leaving many people disappointed," NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Monday.

"Grassy Narrows is the epitome of that broken promise, that track record of saying one thing but not delivering on what matters to people and making sure people's lives are better.

"We believe that we can work honestly towards reconciliation."

NDP reaching out to disaffected Indigenous voters 

Turtle is going up against sitting Liberal MP Robert Nault, who used to serve as minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1999 to 2003 under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

Turtle said he caught the eye of the NDP after speaking at their national convention this spring.

Aside from the mercury problem in Grassy Narrows, Turtle said he wants to advocate for a new water treatment plant in Fort Hope and upgrades in other communities.

Turtle will have to step aside as chief if he wins the Kenora riding, but he said he intends to stay on until the election results are known.

Singh is trying to attract Indigenous voters who feel let down by the Liberal government, but the Liberals are defending their record.

Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette said he is proud of his government's record on reconciliation. (CBC)

"We're trying to undo 152 years of colonization," said Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Liberal MP for Winnipeg Centre and chair of the Indigenous caucus.

"If you could snap your fingers, it would already be done. That's unfortunate it's not done yet, but we are working consistently day after day going forward with the nation-to-nation relationship."

Ouellette said he is proud of his government's work for Indigenous people — particularly new protections for Indigenous languages, child welfare reforms and what he said was a record sum in service spending.

"We understand the needs are so deep and have been neglected for so long, but it takes time to move an organization like the federal government of 150,000 employees in the right direction," Ouellette said.

"We're on the right path and I don't think we should stop because if we stop, no other government will want to touch it ever again."

Indigenous candidates running in upcoming federal election

So far, the NDP has 10 Indigenous candidates, including Turtle and incumbent Georgina Jolibois of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River.

The party has signed up several other high-profile Indigenous candidates, including:

  • Leah Gazan, well-known Indigenous activist, for Winnipeg Centre. 
  • Bob Chamberlin, former vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, for Nanaimo-Ladysmith.
  • Joan Phillip, Penticton Indian Band councillor, for Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.
  • Kathryn Swampy, councillor for Samson Cree Nation, for Edmonton Centre.
  • Anna Betty Achneepineskum, former deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, for Thunder Bay-Superior North.
  • Kyle Mason, Indigenous community leader and activist, for Winnipeg North.
  • Breen Ouellette, Métis lawyer, for Vancouver Centre.
  • Lori Campbell, director of the Shatitsirótha' Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre and an Indigenous studies instructor at St. Paul's University College at the University of Waterloo, for Waterloo.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have seven nominated Indigenous recruits:

  • Rejeanne Caron, police officer and member of Winnipeg Bear Clan Patrol, for Saint Boniface-Saint Vital..
  • Marc Dalton, former BC MLA, for Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge.
  • Celine Laquerre, senior director of human resources for agribusiness company Tootsi Impex, for Dorval—Lachine—LaSalle.
  • Kathy Laframboise, city director, for Ahuntsic-Cartierville.
  • Cyara Bird, community volunteer, for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski.
  • Tanya Corbet, former council member of Tsawwassen First Nation, for Delta.
  • Leona Aglukkaq, former cabinet minister, for Nunavut.

The Liberals have 12 nominated Indigenous candidates:

  • Tammy Cook-Searson, chief of Lac La Ronge Indian Band, for Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River.
  • Jaime Battiste, Mi'kmaq writer and historian, for Sydney-Victoria.
  • Judy Klassen, former Manitoba MLA, for Kewatinook.
  • Yvonne Jones, incumbent, for Labrador. 
  • Michael McLeod, incumbent, for Northwest Territories.
  • Robert-Falcon Ouellette, incumbent, for Winnipeg Centre.
  • Dan Vandal, incumbent, for Saint Boniface—Saint Vital.
  • Marc Serré, incumbent, for Nickel Belt.
  • Vance Badawey, incumbent, for Niagara Centre.
  • Trisha Cowie, lawyer, for Parry Sound-Muskoka.
  • Michelle Corfield, former chair the Nanaimo Port Authority and past chair of the Legislative Council of the Ucluelet First Nation, for Nanaimo-Ladysmith.

The Greens have six nominated Indigenous candidates:

  • Racelle Kooy, community engagement specialist, for Victoria.
  • Lydia Hwitsum, former chief of Cowichan Tribes, for Cowichan—Malahat—Langford.
  • Lorraine Rekmans, former executive director of the National Aboriginal Forestry Association and small business owner in Kemptville, Ont., for Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.
  • Desmond Bull, chief and council member for the Louis Bull Tribe of the Maskwacis Nation, for Red Deer-Lacombe.
  • Craig Blacksmith, chairman of the Dakota Ojibway Community Futures Development Capital Corporation, for Winnipeg North.
  • Amanda Kinstindey, natural disasters and complex emergencies specialist for UN OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), in Don Valley West.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is running as an independent after being removed from caucus at the height of the SNC-Lavalin affair.


  • This story has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly stated Randy Boissonnault is Indigenous. The Liberal Party sent a clarification on Sept. 5 to say Boissonnault's mother is Cree, but he was adopted and does not claim Indigenous heritage. The party says the information came from a staff error in the process of responding to CBC's inquiry into Indigenous candidates.
    Sep 05, 2019 4:16 PM ET
  • A previous version of this article stated Yanik D'Aigle is Indigenous, based on initial information provided by the Conservative Party of Canada. In fact, he is not Indigenous.
    Jul 31, 2019 5:45 PM ET


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.