Chief asks why the PM makes time for a Raptors parade but hasn't visited Grassy Narrows

Grassy Narrows First Nation members are in Toronto as part of the community's campaign to secure construction and long-term funding for a care home for those poisoned by mercury pollution.

A conceptual design for the mercury care home was unveiled Wednesday by Indigenous designer Bret Cardinal to media and community members.

The building is shaped like a canoe with 18 rooms facing south overlooking the lake surrounded by forest.

"It's what the people want," says Sandra Pahpasay.

"It's a cultural thing, as what we Anishinaabe have always believed is that we should be situated near the water."

Mercury contamination

In the 1960s and early 1970s, a paper mill in Dryden discharged nearly 9,000 kilograms of mercury-contaminated effluent into the English-Wabigoon River system.

Pahpasay said she has lost over half of her family to illness from mercury contamination and is having complications to her own health such as fibromyalgia, osteoporosis and a crooked spine.

Talia Ricci/CBC

She said her youngest brother Keith was the first person diagnosed with Minamata disease when he was only a year old. Minamata disease is illness caused by methylmercury poisoning, found in people who consume fish from water that has been contaminated by mercury.

Symptoms include neurological issues, visual and speech impairment and lack of muscle co-ordination. 

Late in May, Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Reagan visited Grassy Narrows, about 80 km northeast of Kenora, for the signing of a memorandum of agreement for a care facility. But after meeting for over four hours, the agreement wasn't signed.

Community members are seeking an $88.7 million trust for the development and 30-year operation costs of the care facility, which will serve as both a hospice and hospital centre. They're asking for a trust to safeguard the funding from changes in government or spending priorities over the long term.

Contribution agreement drafted

In an email response to CBC, Indigenous Services said that building a health facility in Grassy Narrows is a priority.

"We are continuing to work with Chief Turtle and Council to get shovels in the ground as soon as possible," the email said.

"We are ready to start flowing funds and can do so through a contribution agreement that will allow work to begin almost immediately."

Bret Cardinal

Chief Rudy Turtle said he is not impressed with the government's response.

"We're asking for a trust to be set up," he said.

"We want something secure. Contribution agreements are written all the time, they're just standard practice."

He also criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's attendance at the celebration parade for the Toronto Raptors' NBA championship win when he has not yet set foot in Grassy Narrows.

"If the prime minister can switch his schedule to go to a big parade there's no reason why he can't switch his schedule to come to Grassy Narrows," Turtle said. 

"He won't even come and visit our reserve."

A march is planned Thursday from Queen's Park to the Indigenous Services Canada office on Bay Street.