Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized Thursday for his sarcastic retort to an Indigenous protester who interrupted a Liberal fundraising event the night before in Toronto.
Trudeau said he’s sorry for how he responded to the protester, who unfurled a banner at the foot of the stage in an effort to draw attention to the impact of mercury poisoning in the northern Ontario community of Grassy Narrows First Nation.
“Thank you for your donation,” Trudeau told the woman as she was escorted out by security. “I really appreciate your donation to the Liberal Party of Canada.”
Others in the audience, who paid $1,500 each in order to attend the event, cheered the prime minister’s dismissive remark, which was captured by cellphone cameras and circulated on social media.
"Thanks for your donation" – smugger words have never been said 🙄@JustinTrudeau is failing to help #GrassyNarrows, a key test of his 'commitment' to meaningful relationships with First Nations and to a healthy environment.#cdnpoli pic.twitter.com/vtFtPMSAZ4
— Free Grassy (@FreeGrassy) March 27, 2019
Trudeau showed more contrition when asked about the confrontation Thursday.
“As I think you all know, from time to time I’m in situations where people are expressing concerns or protesting a particular thing, and I always try to be respectful and always try to engage with them in a positive way,” he said following an announcement in Halifax.
“That’s how I believe democracy should function, and I didn’t do that last night. Last night I lacked respect towards them and I apologize for that.”
Any funds that the protesters contributed in order to gain access to the event will be refunded, he added.
“They wanted to express their concerns about an issue and I do take that seriously and I apologize to them.”
Indigenous people in Grassy Narrows, about 90 kilometres north of Kenora, Ont., have been contending for decades with chemical-waste mercury dumped into the English-Wabigoon river system throughout the 1960s and 1970s, poisoning fish and locals who rely on the river as a source of water and food.
The community hopes to build a world-class mercury treatment facility to help deal with the fallout from the poisoning, which causes often irreparable damage, including impaired vision, muscle weakness, speech, hearing and cognitive problems and and numbness or stinging pain in the extremities and mouth.
Grassy Narrows staff met with former Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott in December to discuss progress on the facility, shortly after giving the government a feasibility study for the project. At that time Philpott said the government was actively working to get it built.
Trudeau said he plans to follow up with Seamus O’Reagan, who replaced Philpott on the Indigenous Services file in January, to “make sure we are looking at exactly everything we can do to continue to work hard in resolving this situation.”
“It is something that is of real concern and a real piece of the path of reconciliation that we must walk on,” he said.
Grassy Narrows is about 90 km north of Kenora, Ont.
The Canadian Press