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The federal government has agreed to fund a $19.5-million mercury care home for Grassy Narrows First Nation, more than two years after Ottawa first promised the facility.
A nearby paper mill dumped the neurotoxin into the nearby Wabigoon River in the 1960s, contaminating the fish there and poisoning the people from Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations who rely on the fish as a food source. While the funding agreement is a historic victory, Grassy Narrows First Nation is still seeking long-term funding for the programming the facility will need, said Chief Randy Turtle.
"This is a big step forward for our people and I honour all of our youth, elders, and community members who worked to make this happen,” he said in a statement. “Canada, and (Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller) have made sacred promises to us in this contract and in person, and we will make sure that those promises are honoured."
Former Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott first promised the government would fund the home in Nov. 2017, but she was shuffled out of the role and then quit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet after the SNC-Lavalin affair (Philpott was later kicked out of the Liberal caucus and lost her seat in Parliament in the 2019 federal election). Talks stalled under the next minister to take on that role, now-Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan.
Miller took over in November, after the election, but negotiations remained at a standstill. At the time, Turtle said first-generation mercury poisoning victims were dying before they could get care.
Mercury poisoning can cause convulsions, difficulty breathing, impairment to motor skills and balance, vision and hearing problems, a metallic taste in the mouth and muscle weakness. It can cause neurological damage and reproductive issues long-term, and is especially harmful to children. More than 90 per cent of residents in Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations had mercury poisoning symptoms, a 2016 report found.
"My parents had mercury poisoning — they died. All my brothers have mercury poisoning — they’ve died... My kids have mercury poisoning. My grandkids have mercury poisoning,” Grassy Narrows elder Bill Fobister said in December 2019.
The federal government had pushed for a design that was more like an assisted-living home, while Grassy Narrows had drawn up its own blueprint for a facility that gave specialized care to mercury poisoning patients. In a statement, Grassy Narrows said the final agreement would follow the First Nation's plans.
Miller committed to funding the facility on Dec. 4, the Nation said. The deal itself was signed April 3.
"This historic framework agreement is the beginning of an important turning point," Miller said in a statement. "Reflecting on what should have happened a long time ago, I take great pride and promise in what can be done so that specialized care can be accessed, and close to home. I also recognize the work and trust of Chief Turtle putting what he believes in his heart to be just at the center of his advocacy."
Miller has committed to long-term funding for the facility, providing what's "needed to finish the job and give Grassy Narrows that comfort," the Nation's statement read.
"This is a big step forward for our people and I honour all of our youth, elders, and community members who worked to make this happen,” said Grassy Narrows Chief Randy Turtle.
"Grassy Narrows continues to call for compensation for all community members for the impacts of the ongoing mercury crisis and for all support required to restore their health, way of life, livelihood, self-determination, lands and waters," the press release said.
Ontario's Progessive Conservative government made it a campaign promise to clean up, or remediate, the Wabigoon River system. In 2017, scientists found evidence that mercury was still leaching into the waterway.