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Opinion

Trudeau should visit Grassy Narrows First Nation himself

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was right to apologize for his careless remarks a few weeks ago when he brushed aside a protester at a Liberal Party event raising concerns about mercury poisoning in Ontario’s Grassy Narrows First Nation.

The protester was ushered out by security at a Liberal Laurier Club event (for those who have donated a minimum of $1,500 to the party), when Mr. Trudeau said “thank you very much for your donation,” to applause and laughter from the room.

The interaction made Mr. Trudeau look callous in the face of someone trying to get fair treatment for a small northwestern Ontario community that has for decades grappled with the effects of mercury poisoning after former mill owners in the upstream community of Dryden dumped industrial effluent containing mercury into the nearby English-Wabigoon river system in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle told The Hill Times last week he acknowledged Mr. Trudeau’s apology but said he thinks the PM “should go further with action.”

“I think if his apology is sincere that he should be making commitments to Grassy Narrows, especially to complete our mercury treatment home and also he should step foot in our community, we’ve been inviting him to come.”

But the chief said as of April 3 he hasn’t “received any commitments or any even slight suggestion of a possibility” of a visit.

Mr. Trudeau’s Indigenous services minister Seamus O’Regan did agree to visit the community in the coming weeks, but Mr. Turtle said Mr. Trudeau should too.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made the point in Question Period on April 3 that he and his Indigenous youth critic Charlie Angus visited Grassy Narrows and “were devastated by the impacts of mercury poisoning on young people and the community.”

He also noted: “Reconciliation is not just in words. It is in actions.”

He asked if Mr. Trudeau would visit too, but Mr. Trudeau only reiterated his apology and said: “We have continued to work in partnership with the province that holds a significant area of responsibility in this matter to ensure that we are supporting the people of Grassy Narrows.”

Mr. Singh made a good point that actions count. Showing up to Grassy Narrows wouldn’t just be a symbolic gesture of respect to make amends for his earlier disrespectful action; showing up would show Mr. Trudeau cares.

Yes, the federal government only has limited jurisdiction in helping to rectify the community’s decades-long problems, but it has promised to build a treatment facility for those affected by the mercury exposure, which Mr. Turtle is unhappy is taking too long to get off the ground. That’s at least something Mr. Trudeau could help push forward in visiting the community.

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