Grassy Narrows reminds Canada of unkept promises as AFN sets its priority agenda 

Lindsay Richardson and Jamie Pashagumskum
Ojibwe Elder Bill Fobister has mercury poisoning, his children have mercury poisoning and so do his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Two of his cousins – Simon and Steve Fobister, lifelong friends and leaders in their home community of Grassy Narrows – died in the last year.

“When you have mercury, you have it for life,” Fobister said. “It affects your nerves. It affects your taste, your hearing, your vision, and you’re very vulnerable.”

Fobister came to the Assembly of First Nations special chiefs assembly in Ottawa with family and community representatives to remind the federal government of a time-worn promise made to address and rectify the situation that has yet to bear fruit.

Grassy Narrows

(‘When you have mercury, you have it for life,’ says Bill Fobister, right, with Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows First Nation. Photo: Mark Blackburn/APTN)

A mercury treatment centre and care home was set to open in Grassy Narrows next month, based on a commitment made by former federal minister of Indigenous services Jane Philpott two years ago.

The centre, once completed, would provide frontline care for those afflicted with mercury poisoning, as well as provide further study on its impact on the human body.

But construction hasn’t started, and according to Chief Rudy Turtle, the parties are still in the “talking stage.”

“This has been going nowhere. We’re at a standstill,” he said.

Turtle, flanked by the AFN Regional Chief for Ontario, Roseanne Archibald, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and representatives of his home community, demanded an end to the Trudeau government’s “stalling tactics.”

First-generation victims of mercury poisoning, like Forbister, may not live to see the facility open its doors, Turtle said.

“[The government] keeps saying ‘this is what we’re giving to Grassy.’ It’s like a paternalistic approach. They think they know what’s best for us,” Turtle told reporters. “But they don’t. We know what’s best for us – for our people.”

But with a new government in place, Turtle – with Archibald’s and the AFN’s backing – hopes for due attention and action from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“As Chief Turtle said, this community knows what it needs,” Archibald explained. “It has continually asked the government to make commitments to what they know the solutions are.”

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(AFN Ontario Regional Chief Roseanne Archibald addresses the chiefs in assembly in Ottawa Monday. Photo: Mark Blackburn/APTN)

“Indigenous justice must be high on the agenda of the new parliament, and this is one way to show that – that those promises made will be kept,” she added.

“Let’s get this done. Quit delaying. Let’s get this going,” Turtle said.

Also on the agenda at the special chiefs assembly 

Clean water and climate change are two of the primary issues to be discussed among delegates during this year’s assembly in Ottawa.

The three-day summit on unceded Algonquin territory brings together chiefs, councils, and representatives from communities Canada-wide with the intent of finding common ground on fundamental issues, followed by discussions on political strategy.

Canada has entered a time for “bold visions and decisive action” led by First Nations, Bellegarde told delegates during Tuesday’s opening address.

The hope, he says, is to foster a “nation to nation” relationship with Canada while also respecting the inherent rights of Indigenous people.

“The time for delay and half-hearted piecemeal measures has passed,” Bellegarde said.

“This is not a negotiation, these are urgent priorities,” he added.

Trudeau is in London for the NATO summit, and was not present at Tuesday’s proceedings.

The spotlight therefore fell on newly-appointed Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller, who accepted a personal invitation to visit Grassy Narrows and plans to meet with Turtle ‪before Thursday.

“I wont gloss over things, we do have decades and decades of wrongs to right,” Miller said after introducing himself to chiefs and proxies in the assembly in Algonquin. “What we see unfurling in courts across Canada is the cost of inaction.”

“There is a price to action – it’s a steep one. But there’s an even greater cost to inaction,” he added.

The issue currently weighing on Miller’s mind, he told the audience at the summit, is the question of proposed compensation for children apprehended on-reserve in admittedly discriminatory child welfare policies.

In September, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) ordered that these children and their immediate families were eligible to receive up to $40,000 in compensation for “irreparable harm” by “reckless” and “wilfull” discriminatory practices by the Canadian government.

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(‘I wont gloss over things, we do have decades and decades of wrongs to right,’ Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told chiefs and proxies Monday. Photo: Mark Blackburn/APTN)

During hearings held last week in Federal court, Crown attorneys asked that the tribunal’s ruling be put on hold until a judicial hearing was held arguing that the “discrimination” reported by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society was related to the under-funding of child welfare services on-reserve was a thing of the past.

Miller says the government is firm in its commitment to compensate these children and families, and will personally take a seat at the table during negotiation of a fair and equitable compensation scheme – one determined without the tribunal’s oversight, he said.

However, Miller skirted questions from reporters asking whether Canada will drop its request for a full judicial review – an issue of continued concern to child advocates.

“On his face, it sounds positive, but what he didn’t announce was also very important,” Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, told APTN News.

“He did not acknowledge that the discrimination is ongoing. That today and tomorrow kids are willfully and recklessly discriminated against by the Canadian government. And the government has not acknowledged it, let alone planned to fix it,” she added.

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(Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society says there is a lot missing from the minister’s comments. Photo: Mark Blackburn/APTN News)

The crux of the Crown’s argument before Justice Paul Favel, a Cree judge from Saskatchewan, last week was that the alleged discrimination was experienced as a result of the under-funding of essential services for First Nations living on-reserve in Canada.

Substantial financial investments over the last few years, Crown attorneys argued, effectively ended discrimination towards Indigenous youth.

The 2019 federal budget set out $4.4 billion in spending commitments to fulfil Canada’s obligations to Indigenous peoples; with the previous three budgets, this brings federal commitments to more than $21.3 billion over the last 7 years.

A good step, Bellegarde said, but not the first, nor last, that needs to be taken in the interest of reconciliation.

According to AFN Manitoba Regional Chief Kevin Hart, taking back control of on-reserve child welfare programs and services would require “billions” of dollars, and less resistance, from Ottawa.

“Progress does not mean parity,” Bellegarde said, especially considering a number of other issues require imminent government attention.

Suicide and a national strategy 

On Sunday, Bellegarde tweeted about the implementation of a National Suicide Prevention Strategy, commending an AFN executive for making a public push to get the proverbial ball rolling.

In October, Sheshatshiu – an Innu community in Labrador – declared a state of emergency after 10 people between the ages of 12 and 18 attempted suicide.

Then, in late November, the northern community of Makwa Sahgaiehcan in Loon Lake, Saskatchewan, declared a state of emergency after at least three suicides – including that of a 10-year-old girl – were reported within the community.

Another eight suicide attempts were reported in the week following the crisis declaration – a situation that Bellegarde says is “not acceptable.”

The National Chief deviated slightly from his original drafted speech to address youth, telling them they are “special,” “gifted,” and “loved,” and reiterated his earlier assertion about the need for a national strategy to prevent otherwise unnecessary feelings of despair.

“It’s on all of us here and everyone watching to do things to provide our young people hope,” Bellegarde added. “They must believe they will have the chance to enjoy the extraordinary lives they so deserve.”

Much of the progress seen since last year’s assembly is due to the youth who are “demanding action to safeguard their futures,” Bellegarde explained.

But AFN Youth Council representatives say that these same Indigenous youth are living a paradoxical reality.

Mi’kmaq youth delegate Rosalie Labillois explained that she, along with other delegates, stayed up until about two in the morning discussing the common front needed to combat this burgeoning national issue of youth suicide.

“We’re put in a very tough situation. People are telling us we’re these emerging leaders, the future leaders of tomorrow and of today,” Labillois said. “But you have people who are struggling – they feel so desperate that they take their own lives.”

“As leaders, I don’t believe we’re here just to look pretty. I want to get stuff done. I’m not here to butter anything up – I want to tell you the cold, hard truth about what’s happening in our communities,” she added.

Indigenous youth are also consistently credited for mobilizing the climate change resistance – a testament to their importance on the front of key issues, Bellegarde said.

He, along with environmental activists and half a million others marched in a historic gathering held in Montreal on October 21.

Across the country, there are First Nations communities taking “real action” on climate change, he explained.

According to the Indigenous Clean Energy Network, Indigenous communities are already taking part in more than 150 clean energy projects across the country.

The T’Sou-ke First Nation in Ontario, for example, produces so much solar power that it sells surplus energy to British Columbia.

Gull Bay First Nation in Ontario opened a microgrid facility this year. Henley Inlet First Nation is making use of aeolian – or wind- power to bring energy to 100,000 homes in Ontario.

Communities like Peguis First Nation and Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba are employing their local workers to retrofit their communities with equipment to harness geothermal energy.

“This is a time for bold vision and decisive action,” Bellegarde said. “Zero net emissions by 2050 is not just a goal, it’s the only foundation for our common survival.”

But in order to continue with this mobilization, Bellegarde says parties have to bridge the toxic divide.

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(AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde addressing the SCA on Monday. Photo: Mark Blackburn/APTN)

A critical step – one that Bellegarde considers to this year’s “top priority” – is the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into Canadian law.

B.C. Premier John Horgan was honoured before delegates for the recent – and unanimous – adoption of UNDRIP into the province’s law.

After being gifted a star blanket and presented water taken from the Ottawa river in ceremony, Horgan says he hopes Canada is gradually ushering in a “new era of rights recognition,” one that Bellegarde says will hopefully provide the framework for other provinces and territories to “realize [the] right to self-determination.”

Recent victories, including the Tribunal ruling, B.C.’s implementation of UNDRIP, language legislation, and the creation and imminent implementation of Bill C-92 mean, to Bellegarde, that Indigenous rights will not be ignored moving forward.

This means protecting Indigenous women, favouring restorative justice, addressing discrepancies in correctional services, economic development, and respecting treaty rights will also be discussed during the assembly, he said.

By refusing to engage, the government is continuing a trajectory fraught with tension; one that runs the risk of re-traumatizing those affected by both historical, and present-day wrongs.

“That is not reconciliation. That is not upholding the honour of the Crown. That is not respecting human rights,” Bellegarde said. “How many more times and in how many more ways does the federal government need to be told that it cannot discriminate against our young people and our families?”

“We will not back down,” Bellegarde added.

The Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, Justice Minister David Lametti, and Minister of Canadian Heritage and Culture, Steven Guilbault, are expected to address AFN delegates on Wednesday.

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