Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan says a “jurisdictional issue” is holding up the construction of a long-promised mercury poisoning treatment centre in Grassy Narrows, a First Nations reserve in northern Ontario that has suffered for nearly five decades after its main water source was contaminated with mercury.

In an interview with CTV’s Power Play, O’Regan said that while the federal government has committed to building the facility and funding its operation, it will need to work with the Ontario government to provide the “highly specialized medicines” needed to treat mercury contamination.

“We haven’t been as engaged with this government,” O’Regan said. “We need to be. We need them to be at the table.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to end all long-term drinking water advisories -- those longer than 12 months -- on Indigenous reserves by March 2021. Since then, 83 advisories have been lifted and 57 remain. Four short-term drinking water advisories are nearing the 12-month mark.

O’Regan’s predecessor, Jane Philpott, promised Grassy Narrows a specialized treatment facility for the reserve, and though a feasibility study was completed last November, there has been little progress, according to Grassy Narrows Chief Randy Turtle.

He recently expressed concern that the facility may never get built, especially if the Liberals lose the federal election in October. He wants the federal government to put the $88 million that it would cost to build and operate the facility for the next 15 years in a trust so that it will get built regardless of the election results.

O’Regan declined to answer whether he is on board with establishing a trust for this promise. He said that he and the community have been going “back and forth on feasibility studies because we’re not quite there yet on what exactly we need for the community.”

He said that he would travel to Grassy Narrows in two or three weeks for a “substantial meeting” with community leaders on the issue.

Grassy Narrows residents have suffered from the telltale symptoms of mercury poisoning – impaired hearing, speech, cognitive functions and vision – since as far back as the 1960s, when a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system.

“I don’t blame them for being frustrated,” O’Regan said, “but we’ve made a commitment and we intend to keep it.”


O’Regan also said that he is in constant contact with the leaders of the Kashechewan First Nation as it deals with annual spring flooding that hits the community of more than 2,500 people. Its residents are being flown out and relocated to other locations after its chief declared a state of emergency over the weekend.

The federal government signed an agreement three years ago to relocate the community to higher ground. It promised to build a road to the proposed future location for the community, known as Site 5, but there have been few signs of progress.

O’Regan said that he is waiting for the community to complete its demographic study to figure out who exactly will be relocating and that if progress seems slow, it’s because the government wants to get it right and find a permanent solution.

“It sounds like you’re almost being obstructionist, but you’re not,” he said.

O’Regan said that he would continue to work on both issues until he has to start campaigning for the fall election.

“Neither one of these are easy and neither one of these can happen overnight,” he said. “I wish that they could.”

This story has been corrected to clarify that construction delays affect a promised mercury poisoning treatment centre, not a water treatment facility.