Current Problems

Health (18-24)

Grassy Narrows chief calls out feds amid ‘ridiculous’ delays to mercury treatment centre construction

February 16, 2024

Trudeau said ‘money is not the objection’ to building the centre during 2019 election debate

A man speaks into a microphone with demonstrators holding signs behind him.
Rudy Turtle, chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation, addresses a rally against mining proposals on First Nations territory in Toronto in July 2023. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: The chief of Grassy Narrows is calling out the federal government as a long-promised mercury poisoning treatment centre for the northern Ontario First Nation remains beset by delays tied to federal funding uncertainty.

Eight months have passed since Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu promised to seek the extra money Rudy Turtle needs to get shovels in the ground, with the centre facing big cost overruns after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nervous and frustrated, Turtle urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep his high-profile promise to the people of Grassy Narrows — more than four years after he made it.

“We’re still waiting,” said Turtle.

“The people are anxious to have this treatment centre. They keep asking me, ‘When is it going to be built?’ We keep telling them that we’re still waiting for funds. They’re not happy, and they’re starting to feel like it might not even happen.”

The community, also known as Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek, is about 90 kilometres north of Kenora, Ont. In the 1960s and ’70s, an upstream chemical plant dumped an estimated nine tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system, impacting members of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations.

Mercury moves up the food chain, accumulating in greater amounts as organisms eat other organisms. The fish in the river, which the people from Grassy Narrows relied on as a staple in their diet, were contaminated. 

Mercury poisoning can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, according to the World Health Organization.

Trudeau’s government first promised to help build the centre in 2017.

In 2019, a pro-Grassy Narrows protester crashed a Liberal fundraiser to decry the delays, where Trudeau dismissed the activist by saying sarcastically, “Thank you very much for your donation.”

‘Seems like his words are not true’

During the 2019 election leaders’ debate, Trudeau promised to move forward with Grassy Narrows on the centre, saying “money is not the objection.” “He said that on national television during the leaders’ debate, and it seems like his words are not true,” Turtle said.

A sign by the water reads, "Warning: polluted water."
A pulp mill in Dryden, Ont., was responsible for 9,000 kilograms of mercury being dumped into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s and ’70s. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The Liberals committed $19.5-million for the centre’s design and construction in 2020, followed by $68.9 million for operations and maintenance in 2021. This second envelope can’t be used for construction.

Since 2020, the centre’s original $19.5-million price tag has soared to an estimated $81.6 million — cost overruns Hajdu previously attributed to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the specialized nature of the facility’s design.

She said in June 2023 she needed special authority to put more money toward the project and must work with the Finance Department and Treasury Board to get it.

Now, citing cabinet confidentiality, neither Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) nor the Treasury Board Secretariat will discuss this request or confirm if it was made.

“Both Treasury Board agenda items and submissions are cabinet documents and confidences of the King’s Privy Council,” wrote ISC spokesperson Jennifer Cooper in a statement. “As a result, Indigenous Services Canada cannot address these questions.”

Ottawa calls project a priority

NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents Churchill-Keewatinook Aski in northern Manitoba, says the government’s position is puzzling, concerning and insufficient. “This is not reconciliation. This is not healing,” she said.

“This is the opposite.”

An early December 2023 meeting with Hajdu in Ottawa likewise left Turtle with no clarity.

“It didn’t sound like she even knew what was going on,” he said. “But she did say that she’s going to keep pressuring, and also she said she was going to make a presentation to the prime minister.”

Hajdu was not available for an interview. The Prime Minister’s Office declined to respond directly and deferred to ISC.

ISC’s statement said the department is working collaboratively with Grassy Narrows “to determine a path toward a funding solution that will support the community’s healing and recovery” and get the facility built.

A politician rises and gestures during an animated speech.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu rises during question period in the House of Commons in December. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“ISC recognizes the urgency for the mercury care home and this project remains a priority for the department,” said Cooper in the statement.

Ashton and Turtle disagree. “Four years isn’t urgent in anyone’s books,” said Ashton. “The First Nation has been clear the lack of movement is unacceptable.”

Turtle said, “If they were acting urgently, it should have been done already.

“They’re able to get money for other disasters, and this is a disaster that’s been going on for the last 50 years. In some other part of the world they’ll whip up the money quickly to assist other people, and they can’t even assist people in their own backyard. It’s ridiculous.”

He said he is watching for Budget 2024 hoping for the commitment, but calls it a “50/50” toss-up.


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.