WINNIPEG – Rarely is a scene so perfect in showing what it is like to be Indigenous in Canada.
On Wednesday, at a Liberal party fundraiser in Toronto ($1,500 a ticket), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was speaking to donors about “investing in the middle class” and providing “opportunities for all Canadians to have a real and fair chance to succeed.”
He was interrupted by an audience member, activist Lana Goldberg, asking loudly: “People in Grassy Narrows have been suffering from mercury poisoning and you committed to helping…” before being pulled away by security.
Grassy Narrows First Nation has suffered for five decades with severe health problems due to toxins released into the English-Wabigoon river system by a Dryden, Ont., chemical company in the 1960s and ’70s.
For years, doctors and researchers have stated poisonous water is the cause of health issues in the community, impacting, in particular, youth and pregnant women and causing anemia, attention deficit disorder, and cancer.
The community has requested a medical facility and for the pollution to be cleaned up.
In November, then-Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott announced Ottawa would launch a feasibility study for a long-term treatment centre in Grassy Narrows and a medical facility in nearby Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, which has experienced similar mercury poisonings.
Since then, there has been no movement.
Goldberg, not a member of Grassy Narrows but a member of the ally group Free Grassy, had vowed to community members — demonstrating outside the room in Toronto — she would bring their views to the prime minister.
As she was being dragged out, Trudeau announced, to cheers and laughter: “Thank you very much for your donation tonight. I really appreciate the donation to the Liberal Party of Canada.”
It was a picture of the nation.
Inside the room sat wealthy Canadians, self-congratulating themselves for a job well-done and making plans for the future. Leading them is a prime minister who has said, time and time again, he is committed to reconciliation.
Suddenly, a Canadian in the room questions the prime minister’s record on Indigenous issues and how might the wealth taken from Indigenous lands and territories be shared with their residents.
It’s an egregious question, obviously, resulting in the Canadian — even though she bought a ticket — being forcefully escorted from the room.
Meanwhile, Indigenous people sit outside, trying to draw attention to their suffering and exploitation.
What they receive instead is a “thanks for your donation.”
Thanks, Grassy Narrows. Thanks for the land. Thanks for the profit.
The callousness and arrogance of the prime minister was startling.
“I’ve never seen him give that kind of cynical or shut-down response,” said Mark Calzavara of the Council of Canadians, who captured the event on his phone.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde — a Trudeau supporter — called the comments “completely unacceptable and offensive,” and demanded the prime minister apologize and visit Grassy Narrows.
Predictably, the opposition Conservatives jumped in.
“We all have a long way to go in building meaningful relationships with First Nations; reconciliation, and more. This is not a step in that direction,” tweeted Tory MP Michelle Rempel.
This made the picture even more perfect.
The Conservative party wouldn’t have even allowed Goldberg or anyone from Grassy Narrows into the room.
The last Conservative prime minister (Stephen Harper) not only had no vision for reconciliation but created more conflicts with First Nations than previous governments. Over a decade, Harper refused to meet with Indigenous leadership, delivered a sham consultation process costing taxpayers millions, and introduced draconian omnibus legislation designed to remove Indigenous lands for resource extraction projects quickly and permanently.
The Conservatives are not a choice for Indigenous peoples, regardless of how many emails I get saying criticizing the Liberals is an endorsement of the Tories.
So, what’s left? The NDP? The Green party? Parties that may never form government?
It’s almost as if the only choice Indigenous peoples have is to resist. Operate outside the room and the prime minister, sending in activists every once in a while to demonstrate how broken the system is.
A choice of a party that gets more xenophobic by the day and another which tells you that you are a people they respect and then insults you, is no choice.
On Thursday, Trudeau apologized, saying he wasn’t “respectful.”
In a statement, Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle acknowledged the apology but said in response: “People are dying from mercury contamination and nothing is being done. Enough is enough.”
Longtime Grassy Narrows activist Judy da Silva was asked if she had lost faith in Trudeau.
“I’ve seen him in different Indigenous communities, and I felt hopeful,” da Silva said. “I thought this guy was going to be different, but then I see that he is just the same.”
Welcome to being Indigenous in Canada, where resistance seems to be the only choice.
The rest is donation.
Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 30, 2019. Republished with the permission of the author