Federal Cabinet Minister’s visit to mercury ravaged First Nation must be more than a pre-campaign photo op

The following is an open letter written in support of the people of Grassy Narrows.

For the last half century, the people of Grassy Narrows have struggled with the devastating impacts of mercury poisoning. Next week, federal Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan will visit the northwestern Ontario First Nation. What the Minister does while he’s there – whether concrete action to address the community’s urgent health needs are forthcoming or whether it’s a just another pre-election photo op  –  will be a litmus test for the sincerity of the Trudeau government’s rhetoric on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

The people of Grassy Narrows face one of the worst community health crises in Canada, a crisis that can be directly traced to a half century of government indifference and inaction. In the 1960s, an upstream pulp mill dumped 9 tonnes of mercury into the river system that is the lifeblood of the people of Grassy Narrows. The tragic impact on a people who have relied on fish for their culture, subsistence and livelihoods was predictable, yet the federal and provincial governments chose to look the other way.

The river system has never been cleaned up. A minimal compensation agreement negotiated in the 1980s offered a travesty of justice. And no specialized health services have ever been provided for those suffering the effects of mercury poisoning.

In fact, the federal and provincial governments have both long denied that mercury poisoning was even a problem, despite the incontrovertible evidence provided by numerous scientific reports.

A recent study, led by renowned mercury expert Dr. Donna Mergler, found that overall health in Grassy Narrows is dramatically worse than in other First Nations, with the physical and developmental impacts of mercury poisoning impacting even young people born long after it was originally and inaccurately predicted that the mercury would have dissipated.

In January 2017, the Trudeau government broke years of federal silence with the welcome promise that it would deal with the mercury issue “once and for all.” But rather than responding to the Grassy Narrows health crisis in an urgent, decisive manner, the federal government has instead relapsed into the pattern of delays and excuses that has characterized its response all along.

In November 2017, the federal government committed to build and operate a care home and treatment facility for mercury survivors in Grassy Narrows, one of the key recommendations of Dr. Mergler’s study. To date, however, only 1% of the money to build the promised facility has been released, the ground has not been broken, and the Chief and Council of Grassy Narrows report that the project is at a stand still.

In March, Grassy Narrows was thrust into the national media spotlight after the Prime Minister made a dismissive and insensitive remark to Grassy Narrows supporters at a Liberal fundraiser. Minister O’Regan commitment to visit the First Nation came on the heels of the Prime Minister’s apology.

At this point, the onus is on the Trudeau government to demonstrate that this trip is about more than repairing the Liberal brand.

The previous Indigenous Services Minister had also promised to visit Grassy Narrows this year. Jane Philpott had said that she would visit Grassy Narrows in June to “celebrate” the beginning of construction of the treatment centre. Because of the delays that have occurred, there will be no such celebration when O’Regan visits. It’s that much more important then that the Minister do more than reiterate previous promises.  

With a federal election looming, the First Nation is calling for funds for the care home and treatment centre to be put in trust to ensure that their urgent needs will finally be met, no matter who forms the next government. What the people of Grassy Narrows are asking for is a matter of justice and basic human rights. It’s past time that proper care for Grassy Narrows elders and other mercury survivors be treated as a matter of urgent national priority.

Minister O’Regan’s upcoming visit to Grassy Narrows will speak volumes about his government’s true commitment to reconciliation.  After so many promises, only decisive action will do.

Maude Barlow
Honorary Chairperson, The Council of Canadians

Fred Hahn
President, CUPE Ontario

Alex Neve
Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada

Add your voice – send an email to the federal and provincial governments in support of Grassy Narrows.