The chief of the Grassy Narrows First Nation says he is running for the NDP in the fall federal election because he is frustrated with how the government responded to mercury poisoning in his community.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh announced on Monday that Grassy Hills Chief Rudy Turtle would run under the party’s banner in the riding of Kenora in Northern Ontario.
Mr. Turtle said Grassy Narrows was promised a treatment facility two years ago, but the federal government has not delivered.
“It’s been a very difficult situation where they’ve done everything to stall the process,” he said.
Water contamination in Grassy Narrows began in the 1960s after a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system.
Mercury poisoning can cause impaired peripheral vision, hearing, speech and cognitive function, as well as muscle weakness, numbness or stinging pain in the extremities and mouth.
Mr. Turtle said two technical teams have been meeting to discuss the facility, but progress has been slow as they argue over designs and funding amounts.
He said the community requested $19-million for the physical building, but was offered $10-million. Grassy Narrows also asked for $88-million to operate the building for the next 30 years.
Mr. Turtle said he’s worried the facility may not even happen after a number of delays.
The Ontario government pledged $85-million in 2017 to cleaning up the site of the paper mill from where the mercury was first dumped. At the time, the federal government also pledged to fund a treatment facility – but that money has never arrived, Mr. Turtle said.
“That promise should be kept,” he said.
Mr. Turtle also said he was unhappy with how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau treated a Grassy Narrows supporter when they sought to bring attention the water contamination by disrupting a Liberal fundraising event earlier this year. The protester was escorted out of the fundraiser by security while Mr. Trudeau said, “Thank you for your donation.”
Though Mr. Trudeau apologized for his words, Mr. Turtle said the apology needs to be accompanied by actions.
Kevin Deagle, policy adviser for Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan, said the government is steadfast in its commitment to build a health facility. He said a technical group is meeting regularly to develop the plans.
“The technical group is scheduled to meet again this week,” Mr. Deagle said. “At the same time, work is under way between all partners – the province, our government, and the community – to ensure the necessary health services are in place for the facility itself.”
Mr. Singh said health concerns resulting from contaminated water would be a priority for an NDP government. He said the Liberals failed on their promises to Indigenous Peoples.
“Grassy Narrows is the epitome of that broken promise – that track record of saying one thing but not delivering on what matters to people,” he said.
Mr. Singh said the NDP has strong support in Kenora and has held the riding in the past.
Mr. Turtle also said he chose to run because the Liberals failed to implement legislation which would reaffirm rights laid out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
The Liberal Party’s 2019 platform includes a pledge to apply UNDRIP to Canadian law after the bill died when the Senate rose for the summer in June.
Mr. Turtle said he will remain chief for the duration of the election.
“I will step down if – or when – I win,” he said.