OTTAWA -- The case of a northern Ontario First Nation plagued by mercury contamination is "emblematic" of an overall pattern of inaction in the face of grave risks to the health of Indigenous Peoples, a United Nations human-rights expert said Thursday -- the same day the community's chief came to Ottawa to urge action.
Baskut Tuncak, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, said he has heard during a two-week tour with various stops that members of Grassy Narrows First Nation are frustrated and they're suffering from mercury contamination.
Tuncak released preliminary findings on Thursday about his tour, which involved visiting communities affected by toxins. He is to present his conclusions and recommendations to an upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council.
The need to address mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows dates back some 50 years, he said. Tuncak said the case should have been the "highest of priorities" and the government has failed to explain its "inaction."
Tuncak, an American chemist and lawyer, also said he is left with a question about discrimination.
A First Nation near Ontario's border with Manitoba, Grassy Narrows' water was contaminated by tonnes of mercury dumped into its water system by an upstream paper mill. One study estimated that 90 per cent of the population suffers from some degree of mercury poisoning, which can cause everything from cognitive impairments to hearing loss and emotional changes. The heavy metal can be passed from mothers to babies they carry, making it a problem that lasts generations.
Also in Ottawa on Thursday, Grassy Narrows First Nations Chief Rudy Turtle reiterated his call for the federal government to put $88.7 million, the estimated cost for a specialized health facility for residents affected by mercury contamination, into a trust fund.
He argued that such a fund would ensure the project moves ahead no matter the results of the October federal election -- a move supported by former Indigenous-services minister Jane Philpott, now an Independent MP.
Grassy Narrows should have the facility it's been seeking for some time, Philpott said in an interview Thursday, adding the federal government made a commitment to move ahead with it when she was minister.
"It (the trust fund) is an extraordinary measure but I believe that under the circumstances, extraordinary measures are called for," she said.
Canada has kept the issue on the back-burner for half a century, Turtle said, adding he believes the situation would have been addressed long ago if Grassy Narrows were a non-Indigenous community.
"Even while I'm speaking today, there's people suffering in many community," he said.
Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan said Thursday he will work with Grassy Narrows to sign an agreement on the fate of the facility even though the two sides could not reach a deal when he visited the First Nation last week.
The government put out a press release ahead of his visit stating a signing ceremony would take place but after more than four hours of talks, no agreement was reached.
"I am committed to working with Chief Turtle and council and committed to getting this right," O'Regan said in a statement.
Keith Conn, an assistant deputy minister for the First Nations and Inuit health branch of Indigenous Services, told a parliamentary committee on Thursday that creating a trust fund would take an "inordinate amount of time" and cause more delays.
Instead, Conn told MPs the government wants to pursue a contractual agreement.
Another central issue is the federal government does not want to call the facility a "mercury treatment home" but rather an assisted-living facility, Turtle said Thursday.
"I think the fact of the matter is the prime minister and Seamus O'Regan have refused to acknowledge that we have a mercury problem," he said, stressing terminology "definitely" matters to the community.
"We are being poisoned by mercury and our people are suffering and I think that things should be called as they are."