Grassy Narrows worries about fate of Trudeau Liberals' promised treatment home

OTTAWA — The chief of a First Nation in northwestern Ontario long-plagued by the debilitating impacts of mercury contamination says he is worried about the fate of a federally promised treatment facility as the calendar speeds towards this fall's election without any signs of progress.

Grassy Narrows First Nation has suffered from the health impacts of mercury contamination stemming from when a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s.

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Those afflicted with mercury poisoning suffer from impaired peripheral vision, hearing, speech, and cognitive function. Other symptoms include muscle weakness, numbness or stinging pain in the extremities and mouth.

Help for those residents appeared a certainty two years ago when the minister in charge of the file promised a specialized treatment facility on the reserve. A required feasibility study was produced last November that outlined costs and design ideas.

Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle said there has been little action on the project. Meanwhile, there also appears to be a political disagreement between the federal Liberals and the Ontario Tory government over jurisdictional responsibility.

In an interview, Turtle said the community wants to see evidence of progress from the Trudeau government so the project doesn't disappear.

"They made a commitment," he said of the federal government. "We would like to get it going and right now, it is kind of stalled."

He urged the federal government to put $88.7 million — the estimated 30-year cost for the facility, according to the feasibility study — into a trust fund for the community to ensure the project moves ahead no matter the results of the fall federal election.

"We will be certain that there's money there, that money was set aside for the project and whoever gets in (as government), that we can continue on with the work," Turtle said.

The Ontario government secured a $85-million trust for clean up of the land and water nearby in 2017, and that fall, then Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott promised community leaders that Ottawa would fund the treatment facility on reserve.

Philpott followed up in December with a letter confirming the government would pay for the feasibility study and "the construction and operation of the treatment centre in Grassy Narrows once the design work and programming is ready."

Philpott was moved from the post this past January in a cabinet shuffle. She now sits as an Independent MP after being removed from the Liberal caucus over her public concerns about the government's handling of the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

"I actually had been preparing to go to the community myself before I was shuffled," Philpott said.

Her replacement at Indigenous Services, Seamus O'Regan, plans to visit the community and said the government remains "absolutely committed" to the mercury home. He said design work is underway along with building a construction schedule, but he did not offer specifics.

Grassy Narrows has suffered for generations, O'Regan said, but work can't go ahead without Ontario's co-operation.

"Ultimately, it is a health facility so we have to make sure we work with them (Ontario) on that because delivery of health care is provincial jurisdiction," O'Regan said. "We are committed to building the facility and we will do that."

Ontario's new Progressive Conservative government argued the federal Liberals were playing partisan political games to distract from inaction. A spokesman for Ontario Northern Development Minister Greg Rickford said Philpott's 2017 promise came absent any funding or operational commitment from the previous provincial Liberal government.

"There's absolutely nothing stopping the federal government from fulfilling their commitment to the community," Brayden Akers said in a statement. "Any suggestion otherwise is blatantly false."

In the meantime, Grassy Narrows awaits word about when O'Regan will visit. The First Nation has also sent multiple invitations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that have yet to be answered.

At the end of March, Trudeau apologized for his response to a protester who interrupted a Liberal fundraising event to draw attention to the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. As security escorted the woman out, Trudeau thanked her for her donation: "I really appreciate your donation to the Liberal Party of Canada."

Philpott said she personally hopes federal work on the mercury home will move ahead quickly because Canadians can't understand why the people of Grassy Narrows have not yet gotten the help they need.

"That we can't provide care is really something that shames us all," she said.

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