Today, I hang my head in complete and utter shame.
My Prime Minister, who in 2015 promised Canadians that indigenous reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations people would be moved to the top of this country’s and the new government’s agenda, has shamed me in every possible way.
On Wednesday of this week, while attending a $1,500 a plate Liberal fundraiser at the Omni King Edward Hotel in Toronto, a female member of the Grassy Narrows First Nation, which just happens to be a well-known norther Ontario community suffering the long-term impacts of mercury poisoning, was forcibly removed from the room after unfurling a protest banner.
While being escorted from the room by a number of security personnel, but holding tight to her banner, the lady in question began to shout about Grassy Narrows, the mercury poisoning that has been an ongoing health hazard in her community since the 1960s (yes, folks, since the 1960s) all the time asking why the Federal Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario were dragging their collective feet while people were still being poisoned.
So, you must be asking, why should anybody, including myself, be shamed by this simple act of defiance?
Well, first and foremost, this little act of protest and our Prime Minister’s disproportionate response has clearly revealed where Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Party of Canada and the Government of Canada have collectively placed the whole issue of indigenous reconciliation. It is now clear, even to the most cynical of political observers, that reconciliation is no longer a top priority of the Trudeau government.
And further, we now have a clear understanding of where the Federal Government has placed the issue of clean and healthy drinking water for Grassy Narrows in particular, and safe drinking water on First Nations Reserves in general. Just a guess here folks, but I’m thinking this issue is no longer at the top of the agenda.
The bare details are necessary here if we are to understand the depth of this problem/issue.
As with most First Nations issues in Ontario, things are complicated, as they say in government while trying to pass the buck from one jurisdiction to the other.
There is little doubt the Federal Government bears a direct responsibility to our First Nations, primarily due to Canada’s treaty obligations with the different indigenous communities. But as with most things in Canada, provincial jurisdiction does play a significant role as well. In this case, as with all cases where safe and healthy drinking water become the issue, the Province of Ontario is responsible for natural resources; meaning a direct responsibility for the water in Grassy Narrows and other First Nations communities throughout the Province.
Grassy Narrows has been suffering from mercury poisoning in the community water supply for almost 60 years now. Sometime during the 1960s, a pulp and paper mill was built upstream of the community. Since the construction of that mill, thousands of pounds of effluent have been dumped into the English-Wabigoon river system.
Somehow, someway, the company owning the pulp and paper mills managed to clean up its systems (for the most part) by the 1980s, but as is the case with so many environmental happenings, the damage was already done.
So, here we are, in 2019, and we are at a Liberal Fundraiser at the Omni King Edward Hotel in Toronto. And a lone, female and indigenous protester is being escorted from the house. But why was she there in the first place?
Well, she was there because Ottawa has been promising the construction of a medical facility for years now, but not just any old medical facility. Ottawa has been promising a facility specifically meant to address mercury poisoning. But, again, you guessed it. The whole project is behind schedule.
In November of 2018, then Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott announced that Ottawa would provide $170,000 to fund a feasibility study for a long-term treatment centre in Grassy Narrows. Philpott also promised a treatment centre in the Wabaseemoong, or Whitedog, First Nation that has had similar mercury poisonings.
These treatment centres were meant to begin construction last year, but to date, nothing has happened.
Members of the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations have shown that they have uncommonly high levels of mercury in their blood systems, mostly from eating fish coming from the above-mentioned river systems. Mercury is carried in fish, particularly in whitefish such as walleye, and it “bioaccumulates” – meaning it is passed from one generation to the next through childbirth. As a result, it is nearly impossible to get rid of the mercury from the body.
Sufferers of mercury poisoning have been known to have learning disabilities, blindness issues, difficulties with balance, and many other ailments. The estimated cost of the centre in question is $17 million, but due to the long-term effects of the mercury in the communities in question, residents are calling on Ottawa to provide long term funding over a 30 year period, to the tune of roughly $88 million. And the request is that the long-term funding be put in a trust, so that future governments wouldn’t be able to renege on funding commitments. Given the Federal Governments track record with respect to First Nations funding issues, this is surely a reasonable request.
So, here we are again….. at the Omni King Edward Hotel in Toronto, at a $1,500 per plate Liberal Fundraiser, where Toronto’s “Who’s Who” is assembled paying tribute to the Liberal Party Leader. Our heroine unfurls her banner and tries to say her piece. She is quickly man-handled and is being escorted out of the room.
The assembled Liberal donors – the elite of the Liberal Party of Canada by the way – are the richest of the rich Liberals. Those who donate $1,500 a year to the Party are granted a membership in the Laurier Club, and in Liberal circles that is considered “exalted” status.
So, as our heroine is being escorted from the room, our Prime Minister, in the most sarcastic voice manageable, says to the young lady “THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR DONATION TONIGHT. I REALLY APPRECIATE IT”. At Trudeau’s pronouncement, the assembled Liberal elite applaud and cheer, some even attempting to start a standing ovation. Well, we now know what elite Liberals think of indigenous protest.
Now, some of you will no doubt argue that a Liberal fundraiser is not the proper venue to protest anything, much less a First Nation’s environmental drinking water issue. That is a legitimate position and it is certainly worthy as an opinion.
I, on the other hand, would argue that if you want, as a protester, to get someone’s attention, a political party fundraiser (no matter the political strip) is exactly the venue that you need for effective protest. In my many past political lives I have both orchestrated and been the victim of “the protest” at fundraisers and political conventions. In this setting, you are not only striking at the actors who are responsible in government, but you are getting the attention of those large donors and “movers and shakers” who make election campaigns possible. Politically speaking and thinking, there is no better venue if you are trying to garner attention.
This young lady paid her $1,500 to gain access to the event, and she had as much right to be there as did the Chair of one of the many Canadian banks who were in attendance. And we do live in a democracy. She has a right to her opinions, and she has a right to express herself in a peaceful way, which she was trying to do.
She deserves our respect and at least our qualified support. It took a great deal of courage to do what she did. And she was peaceful in her attempt to say what she came to say.
What she did not deserve was the sarcastic and very disrespectful comments from Justin Trudeau, nor did she deserve the misguided applause from the Liberal elite as she was being escorted from the room.
And she certainly does not deserve to live on a reserve in Northern Ontario that has been serving up poisoned water for almost 60 years now.
I am ashamed of my Prime Minister’s actions regarding this event. I am ashamed that those of you who are active in, and supportive of, the Liberal Party of Canada behaved in such a manner. I am ashamed that others who are involved in the political process in other political parties often behave in a similar fashion when confronted with protestors at political events. Politics is, after all, a safe forum for debate and the exchange of ideas, and last I heard even those who proudly carry First Nations status are allowed to participate in the political process in Canada.
Most of all, however, I am ashamed to say that I live in a country where the great majority of our First Nations citizens live without the benefit of safe drinking water. And we have two levels of government who obviously couldn’t, and don’t, give a hoot.