OTTAWA — The chief of a northwestern Ontario reserve —and an NDP candidate in this fall's federal election — is calling on Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan to sit down to hammer out an agreement on a long-promised treatment facility for mercury poisoning.
Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Rudy Turtle, who is running in the federal riding of Kenora, said in an interview on Tuesday that O'Regan has not been willing to meet with him since he came to the community at the end of May in what turned out to be an unsuccessful effort to get the agreement signed.
Grassy Narrows First Nation has suffered from the health impacts of mercury contamination stemming from when a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s.
"If he (O'Regan) is serious about this project and getting things done, he should talk to me and we should be talking on a regular basis to make sure that the yard stick moves," Turtle said. "Right now, the yard stick is not moving. We are pretty much at a standstill."
At the end of July, Turtle sent a letter to O'Regan to reiterate his request for in-person meetings to discuss the mercury home, resolve all issues and set aside the necessary funding ahead of this fall's election.
Earlier this month, First Nations leaders mourned the death of Grassy Narrow's former chief Simon Fobister, who advocated for the creation of the mercury home to allow for community members to die close to their loved ones.
Fobister, however, was not able to die at home. Instead, he did so at a hospital in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Concern in the community is mounting about reaching a deal ahead of the election, Turtle said Tuesday, noting central sticking points remain between the community and Ottawa, including over funding levels and the design of the facility.
Grassy Narrows wants $19 million for the construction of the facility to provide specialized care for community members dealing with the symptoms of mercury contamination, Turtle said, noting Ottawa has proposed $10 million.
O'Regan's office said it remains steadfast in its commitment to build the facility, and that while the minister is closely engaged, health and engineering experts who are part of a technical working group are the ones best placed to make it happen.
"Our teams have been working well together, and we are making progress towards an agreement," said a statement provided to The Canadian Press.
"When the teams met at the end of July, they agreed to return to the table with more information about the size and scope of the facility. We will continue to work with the community of Grassy Narrows to seek more information to help inform next steps and any future meetings."
The problem for Grassy Narrows is that the officials present in the technical meetings do not have the decision-making authority to come to a final agreement, which is why Turtle asked in July for negotiations with the minister.
Turtle said Tuesday he hopes his candidacy for the New Democrats is not standing in the way of meeting with O'Regan.
"Even if I didn't run, we would still be hammering away and of course making our public appeal," he said.
The riding of Kenora is currently held by Liberal MP Bob Nault, a former cabinet minister seeking re-election this fall.
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press