OTTAWA - The chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation is accusing the Liberal government of stalling on a treatment centre for residents with mercury poisoning and is calling for a less "paternalistic" approach from the feds.
Chief Rudy Turtle was joined Tuesday by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and elders and youth from the northern Ontario community, all calling on the Liberal government to stop the delays in getting the centre built.
Turtle, who ran as a candidate for the New Democrats in the last election, said he has become disheartened watching two years go by, and still the federal government and Grassy Narrows can't come to an agreement on the design for the promised facility.
In the meantime, people in the community have had to leave for treatment and some have died away from their families.
"So far, this has been going nowhere. It's been at a standstill," Turtle said.
"We are calling upon Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau to start acting, and start doing something — to quit these stalling tactics and to get this thing moving."
Bill Fobister Sr. is among many Grassy Narrows residents suffering from mercury poisoning from industrial contamination in the water supply. He said his parents and brothers have all died after also being exposed to mercury contamination in the community.
Clutching hard to the podium in front of him, the Grassy Narrows elder explained how the illness has left him debilitated, affecting his nerves, his taste buds and his immune system.
He paused long and hard, overcome with emotion, as he remembered two former chiefs who had been at the forefront of the fight to get federal help for the people of Grassy Narrows. Simon Fobister died in August and Steve Fobister passed away in October. Both were his cousins.
"They were strong leaders. But it did seem like they were still plugging away, even when they were sick. That's how determined they were. And that's how determined we are here today," Fobister said.
He added that his greatest fear is that his condition will worsen and that he could possibly succumb to his illness away from his community.
The proposed centre is envisioned as a specialized medical facility where members of Grassy Narrows First Nation who live with lasting impacts of mercury poisoning can seek treatment in the community.
The contamination stems from when a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s.
Help for the community seemed to be on the way when the federal government promised a specialized treatment facility in 2017 and a feasibility study was produced last year outlining costs and design ideas.
Turtle had 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 October federal election.
On Tuesday, he said Ottawa has instead come to the community with a design for a facility that would act more as an assisted living home than a treatment facility.
That's why he's upset with the approach the Trudeau government has taken on the consultations for the treatment centre, calling it "paternalistic."
"They think they know what's best for us but they don't. We know what's best for our people because we live there, we live with them, we come from Grassy Narrows and we know our needs," Turtle said.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, who is new to the portfolio, said he did not want to comment on the chief's concerns until after they have had a chance to speak directly. A meeting is scheduled between the two Wednesday.
Miller did say the government "stands ready to help, and we will."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2019.