Indigenous protestors bring national attention to ongoing humanitarian and environmental crisis
By Bex Peterson, Editor-in-Chief
An interaction between protestors from the First Nations communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made national headlines last week after Trudeau dismissed the protestors in a manner Trudeau himself has since described as having “lacked respect.”
The protestors attended a Liberal fundraiser last week to demand action for their communities, which have been suffering the effects of mercury poisoning since a chemical plant upstream dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River in the ’60s and ’70s.
“Prime Minister Trudeau, people at Grassy Narrows are suffering from mercury poisoning,” the first protestor, Lana Goldberg, could be heard saying at the event during Trudeau’s speech. “You committed to addressing this crisis.”
As Goldberg was ushered away, Trudeau addressed her by saying, “Thank you for being here, thank you very much for your donation tonight. I really appreciate it.”
According to Global News, the fundraiser was for members of the Laurier Club, who “are considered high-end Liberal donors who must contribute a minimum of $1,500 in order to join the ranks.”
As the donors laughed at Trudeau’s comment, the Prime Minister added, “As we know, the Liberal Party is filled with different perspectives and different opinions, and we respect them all.”
Another protestor in the audience then said, “If it was your family that’s been waiting for 500 days, if your family was suffering from mercury poisoning, what would you do? If it was your family, would you accept it? Would you accept 500 days for one percent?”
Trudeau’s comments were roundly condemned by Indigenous communities and allies across the country, with National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde describing them as “completely unacceptable and offensive as a response to the serious issue of mercury contamination and the health of children and families in Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong.”
The Prime Minister has since apologized for his remarks and has promised that the protestors will have the full cost of entrance to the fundraiser refunded to them. However, his apology has not done much to reconcile with the communities at the heart of the issue.
“Trudeau’s apology rings hollow while our people are suffering without the care and support that we need,” said Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle to the National Post.
The communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, located in northwestern Ontario, were both promised long-term treatment centres for victims of mercury poisoning in November of 2017 by then-Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott. Construction on the Grassy Narrows facility was due to start last fall, but so far, no progress has been made. In December, the community of Grassy Narrows was told that construction was expected to begin sometime this June.
“I acknowledge Trudeau’s apology, but more importantly he needs to deliver on his government’s promise to build a Home and Treatment Centre so our mercury survivors can be cared for with dignity,” said Turtle.
Mercury poisoning is a severe medical issue due to several factors. For starters, there is no flushing mercury from the system: It remains inside the body and can be passed along to children born from mothers suffering from mercury poisoning. The effects of mercury poisoning include muscle weakness, poor coordination, numbness in the hands and feet, skin rashes, anxiety, memory problems, and trouble speaking, hearing, and seeing. In the long-term, mercury poisoning can result in severe kidney damage.
According to the CBC, 90 percent of the population in Grassy Narrows experiences symptoms of mercury poisoning, which has affected three generations of residents.
“We could all be dying,” said resident Chayna Loon to the CBC. “We probably are, already, and we don’t know what’s going to happen because nobody is helping.”