Indigenous organizations called out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Thursday for a comment he made to a heckler advocating on behalf of Grassy Narrows First Nation at a Liberal fundraiser Wednesday night in Toronto.
Trudeau, who typically takes a let’s-talk approach when protesters approach, found himself delivering a sarcastic response to the person who interrupted his remarks.
“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.”
Liberals in attendance cheered as she was removed which was captured by cellphone cameras and quickly circulated on social media Wednesday night.
“Last night I lacked respect towards them and I apologize for that,” Trudeau told media at an event in Halifax. “It is obviously an issue that they feel very, take very seriously and now as I understand it involved a child possibly.
“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.”
“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.
The video that was posted to twitter by user @freegrassy has gone viral.
It has close to 300,000 views by Thursday afternoon.
“The liberal party is filled with different perspectives and different opinions and we respect them all and our commitment to reconciliation continues to be strong and committed and we will continue to engage,” Trudeau said.
But many have since criticized the prime minister, calling his response smug to a situation that has affected First Nations communities for decades.
In a tweet, NDP MP Romeo Saganash said, “just another telling episode about how he really doesn’t…care about Indigenous rights and people.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called the comments unacceptable and offensive.
Grassy Narrows in Ontario has long argued to both the provincial and federal governments that they’ve suffered mercury poisoning from contaminated water.
In 2017 the Ontario government committed $85 million to clean up the damage done by a paper mill in nearby Dryden during the 1960s and 70s.
Mercury contaminated the Wabigoon River that flows upstream to Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, poisoning the fish they rely on for sustenance.
Earlier testing revealed about 90 per cent of the people living in the two communities have experienced symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Trudeau says he will instruct his Indigenous Services minister to work hard to find a solution.
“The situation in grassy narrows is one that we’ve been following for quite a while,” Trudeau said.
“It involves elements of provincial jurisdiction and federal responsibility.”
In a statement from First Nation leaders in Treaty 3, the chief of Grassy Narrows says, “we acknowledge the prime minister’s apology however, he must be reminded of the urgency of this matter and the ongoing struggle and threats to the health of First Nations citizens because of environmental contamination for over 50 years.”