Evidence of meeting #155 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was grassy.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Keith Conn  Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Susan Humphrey  Associate Regional Director General, Strategic Policy Branch, Ontario Region, Department of the Environment
Greg Carreau  Director, Water and Air Quality Bureau, Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, Department of Health
Tom Wong  Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Jennifer Mercer  Director, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Grant Wedge  Assistant Deputy Minister, Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, Government of Ontario
Rudy Turtle  Grassy Narrows First Nation
Frank Miklas  Director, Northern Region, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, Government of Ontario
David Sone  Advisor, Grassy Narrows First Nation

10:25 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Thank you, and thank you to the witnesses. I'm going to summarize what I think we've heard this morning.

First of all, it's an issue that's gone on for over 60 years. The impacts of the mercury poisoning have been tragic and dramatic.

Was it 10 tonnes, Mr. Miklas, that I heard you say was released directly into the river?

10:25 a.m.

Director, Northern Region, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, Government of Ontario

Frank Miklas

Ten tonnes from 1963 to 1970.

June 6th, 2019 / 10:25 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

I want to go back to my analogy this morning. In those same years, we were told that if we dropped a thermometer, we should look for the little beads of mercury and be extra cautious, yet we're hearing the number 10 tonnes. We are also hearing that potentially there is still discharge into the river and that children are being born with mercury contamination levels that exceed...and will be impacting their health.

Chief Turtle, I can't imagine what you've been through over the last number of years. I congratulate you for your perseverance.

We also heard about this whole issue around the agreement. We understood that the minister was going to go.... There was an agreement that you talked about that was going to be signed. I find it absolutely stunning that the issues were not worked out prior to his coming to a signing ceremony. It's very clear what your interests were.

Can you maybe talk about what happened there? We all expected good news to come out of that particular day when the minister came to your community. I understood that you were ready and prepared to sign and had a celebration organized.

10:25 a.m.

Grassy Narrows First Nation

Chief Rudy Turtle

First of all, for the initial meeting, we met in Toronto. I clearly told Anne Scotton and her team that I had to take this agreement back home to see if my members would approve it. The first thing I made clear was that I couldn't just say, “Yes, I'll sign it.” I had to take it home first and have our team look it over. Right there, they made the mistake of assuming that I was just going to sign it, when I clearly told them in Toronto that I had to take it home first for approval.

As you are aware, there are processes that you have to go through. As chief, I just can't say yes. It would be wrong. I would be a bad leader if I just said yes—even today, to anybody here. I have to take things home and review them with my council, with my team members, before I can sign anything. That's the first thing I told them, and I said that very clearly.

Second, they did not punch in the numbers. They only gave me numbers for phase one, which was the upgrade of the clinic or addition to the clinic that we now have. They gave us the numbers when they arrived in Grassy Narrows, so how could I sign something, a blank piece of paper? I can only sign something when it's all filled in. That was the first thing. Nobody signs a blank sheet of paper.

There were other issues that we identified. Number one, we asked for a mercury treatment facility, not an assisted-living home. Second, we asked for a trust fund similar to the one that Ontario set up. That is just for certainty, should there be a change of government or a change of policy, whatever, so that we could make sure this facility would keep going. Those weren't added in.

10:30 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Okay. Are you optimistic, because, of course, we're now into June, that you're close enough to getting the deal that you want and need? Are you optimistic at this point that those additional issues can be addressed?

10:30 a.m.

Grassy Narrows First Nation

Chief Rudy Turtle

We are making some steps. There is progress. It's slow. I'm trying to be optimistic, yes, and we have made some small steps, so I'm hoping we will get something done.

10:30 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

I hope I speak for all committee members in saying that we are behind you in getting this done in this Parliament.

Mr. Viersen.

10:30 a.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Mr. Miklas, how confident are you that we will be able to find the source of this mercury?

10:30 a.m.

Director, Northern Region, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, Government of Ontario

Frank Miklas

As I've mentioned, that's definitely something we are working on. We did the assessment work in 2017 and 2018 on the mill site and we're continuing to do that work this coming year. As I mentioned earlier, we've been working on the assessment work in the river system since 2016 and we continue that work, and —

10:30 a.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Are there any other potential sources?

10:30 a.m.

Director, Northern Region, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, Government of Ontario

Frank Miklas

We're continuing to do the assessment work to identify the extent and location of the mercury.

10:30 a.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Okay.

Mr. Wedge, you said that you have new applicants coming in through this board. Is there an end in sight to the potential number of people living with the impacts of this mercury poisoning? Are we making progress in stemming the tide?

10:30 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, Government of Ontario

Grant Wedge

To be clear, it is a board that's dealing with those who have symptoms consistent with.... I think some of the members were asking questions about the presence of mercury in mothers and their children, and I've noted pediatric assessments.

I don't know that there are projections at this point, in direct answer to your question about how this will go. I think it is one of those challenges around discovering where the continuing effects are being experienced and then how they may be addressed.

10:30 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you. Questioning now moves to MP Niki Ashton.

10:30 a.m.

NDP

Niki Ashton NDP Churchill—Keewatinook Aski, MB

Chief Turtle, thank you for being here today. I want to share, on behalf of my colleagues Georgina Jolibois, Charlie Angus and our leader Jagmeet Singh, that we stand with your community. We are horrified that yet one more delay has taken place. We stand with you in urging the government to act immediately.

Given the sensitive timing of the issue, for us it's very important that you have the chance to hear from somebody who has worked with you very closely on this, and that's why we'd like to cede our time to Jane Philpott.

10:30 a.m.

Independent

Jane Philpott Independent Markham—Stouffville, ON

I thank the NDP very much for the opportunity to have some time here.

I greet you, Chief Turtle. Thank you for your phone call a couple of nights ago and for our conversation again yesterday. I want to send greetings to the entire Asubpeeschoseewagong community. I want to speak in support of the request the community has made for a trust fund. I think I share that sentiment with my colleagues who have offered me this time.

Chief, when we talked about this, you gave me the reasons you believe it's important. We talked about the moral imperative, about the fact that thousands of people—both in your community and in surrounding communities—have been impacted by the mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system, and about how there is no other group of Canadians who would accept suffering such health consequences and not have appropriate health facilities to treat them.

The commitment was made on behalf of the government, as I know very well. I believe that it's incumbent upon the government to continue with that commitment.

You and others have outlined a clear clinical need. I urge people who haven't read the Mergler report to do so. It does outline not only the effects on adults, but the severe neurological effects on children of mercury contamination.

Chief, you talked to me about the exceptional circumstances that you're under and that is why you have asked for this $89-million trust. My question for you is: What do you think are the reasons it has not come to pass? I have a list of five potential theories; I wonder if any of them are reasons that you have as to why this agreement has not yet been reached.

Earlier, the officials talked about the fact that it was the mechanism of a contribution agreement versus a trust fund that was the debate. I wonder if, in fact, it's not so much the mechanism, but the amount of money because the amount of money in the trust fund is significantly larger—in the order of $89 million. However, I would argue that one can calculate $89 million to be 0.025% of what the federal government is going to spend this year. I think most Canadians would argue that spending 0.025% of this year's money to give 30 years of treatment to the people of Grassy Narrows is a very good investment.

The second possibility I have heard is that it's a question of time. Officials talked about the fact that they didn't have time to prepare the details of the trust fund. I wonder, Chief, whether you think that the thousands of officials who work in Indigenous Services Canada—along with their colleagues, the thousands of officials who work in Finance Canada—could not somehow find the time over the next couple of weeks to write up what would be necessary for a trust fund, knowing that there are examples in Ontario and others that we've heard about this morning that could be seen as a template for this.

The third theory I have is that it's a lack of political will. I don't actually believe that to be the case. I know my colleagues in the Liberal Party and in the government want to do right by indigenous peoples, so it is my sense that this is not the actual problem. I think there is, as others have said here, a shared political will of all members of Parliament to see justice for the people of Asubpeeschoseewagong.

The fourth theory I have is the trust issue. The minister spoke last week about the fact that possibly you weren't trusting the government to be able to come through with the long-term expenses. My theory is that perhaps it's the other way around. Do you think it's possible that the government doesn't trust you and your officials to be able to administer a trust fund appropriately? I'll put that to you as a possibility.

The fifth area that I think may be a stumbling block is that, in my understanding, this would be because of the size of an $89-million trust fund. It would require an off-cycle budget ask from a government that's just tabled its final budget. If that is the case, Chief, I wonder if there's a way that we could support you—and perhaps members of this committee could support you—by collectively asking the Minister of Finance to consider the possibility of an off-cycle budget ask, even at this late stage, in order to find the money necessary for this trust fund.

Imagine the legacy that this government could share with you and your community, Chief, as well as the members of this 42nd Parliament, if in fact this could be put in place before the end of the term.

I'd be interested in your thoughts on whether there are other reasons that I haven't considered and in what ways we could support you to be successful in the coming weeks.

10:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

You don't have much time, just over a minute.

10:35 a.m.

Grassy Narrows First Nation

Chief Rudy Turtle

Okay.

First of all, I believe that anything is possible. I believe that where there's a will, it can be done. It's just a matter of if they're willing to do it, it can be done. If Ontario can do it, why not the feds? That's been my thought. It's not impossible, as they're saying. It can be done. I have no doubt it can be done. You just have to do it.

10:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

The questioning now moves to MP Mike Bossio.

10:35 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Thank you all once again for being here.

As I said earlier, this is such an incredibly difficult story, and I struggle to find the right questions that can do justice to try to bring some kind of enlightenment on how we can move forward in a successful way. I think my colleague, MP Philpott, tried to add to that, to shed some light on a path forward.

I think that our government does very much want to do the right thing. I think that, as Ms. Philpott said, the political will is absolutely there to do the right thing.

Chief, in the history of dealing with this issue, is this the first time you have felt some level of optimism that we can finally get to an agreement that will help benefit your community in the long run to finally deal with this issue?

10:40 a.m.

Grassy Narrows First Nation

Chief Rudy Turtle

It's been a very long, difficult journey. We've had to protest and make some noise and do whatever just to get the attention. But as I said before, I try to be optimistic, and hopefully there will be.... I do see some light at the end of the tunnel; let's put it that way.

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

I know a question was asked earlier with regard to the amount of funding at the provincial level. Unfortunately, Mr. Wedge wasn't able to answer the question about the specialized health services that will need to be provided to the community once the facility is built.

You've had direct interactions with the province and the appropriate ministry. Do you feel that the response will be there, that once we finally achieve this agreement and the facility is built, that from a services standpoint you'll be able once again to provide the vast array of services that will be needed over decades? We're talking about everyone, from infants to seniors today, who will require a very broad range of services to help them through their lives.

10:40 a.m.

Grassy Narrows First Nation

Chief Rudy Turtle

Dr. Pederson has been looking into it, and we did get a letter from him and it sounded as though he would be able to access some services. I believe we have forwarded that letter to the federal people.

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

As far as the cleanup goes, as I mentioned earlier with regard to receiving intervenor funding through the trust, how do you feel the cleanup of the mercury contamination is coming along? How do you feel about the progress and, I guess, first trying to identify the sources of contamination? Do you suspect there were potentially barrels of mercury buried on the site that are leaking now and that could be the source of contamination? Do you have your own theories locally as to what you feel...?

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

MP Bossio, there has been a point of order.