Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is apologizing for what critics called his “smug” response to protesters who hoped to draw his attention to mercury contamination in the First Nation communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong during a Liberal fundraiser in Toronto on Wednesday night.
According to a video posted to Twitter that showed Trudeau delivering a speech during the Laurier Club event at the luxury Omni King Edward Hotel, Trudeau responded to protesters by saying repeatedly, “Thank you for your donation.”
WATCH: Trudeau responds to First Nations protesters at a Liberal fundraiser
Laurier Club members are considered high-end Liberal donors who must contribute a minimum of $1,500 in order to join the ranks.
Trudeau was asked about the response by reporters in Halifax on Thursday morning and said he recognizes his response was not appropriate.
“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 engage with them in a positive way,” he said.
“I didn’t do that last night. Last night I lacked respect towards them.”
He continued, adding that the protesters will have the full cost of entrance to the event refunded and that he will be asking Indigenous Service Minister Seamus O’Regan’s office to make sure they are fully engaged on addressing the problem.
“I do take that seriously and I apologize to them.”
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, condemned the remarks in a statement shared with Global News following Trudeau’s apology and said the prime minister should do more to express his remorse.
“The Prime Minister’s comments yesterday are completely unacceptable and offensive as a response to the serious issue of mercury contamination and the health of children and families in Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong,” Bellegarde said.
“We see the Prime Minister has apologized this morning. He should apologize directly to those involved and he should visit Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong to talk to the people there and see the impacts of the mercury contamination firsthand. This incident highlights the need for action now.”
The protester on Wednesday night had held up a banner calling on Trudeau to compensate people within the community.
“Mr. Trudeau, people at Grassy Narrows are suffering from mercury poisoning. You committed to addressing this crisis,” the protester could be heard saying.
The protester was subsequently ushered away. That’s when Trudeau addressed her directly.
“Thank you for being here, thank you for your donation tonight. I really appreciate it,” he said, to laughs, applause and cheers from the audience.
The prime minister then continued: “As you know, the Liberal Party is filled with different perspectives and different opinions, and we respect them all.”
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Another protester, still in the audience, then said off-camera: “If it was your family that’s been waiting for 500 days, if your family was suffering from mercury poisoning, what would you do? If it was your family, would you accept it? Would you accept 500 days for one per cent?”
A Facebook event promoting the protest alleged that Trudeau is “failing to help Grassy Narrows, a key test of his ‘commitment’ to meaningful relationships with First Nations and to a healthy environment.”
The event post said that in November 2017, then-minister of Indigenous services Jane Philpott had “promised to build and operate a Mercury Survivors Home and Care Center in Grassy Narrows.”
However, 500 days have passed since that commitment, and “only one per cent of the cost to build the facility has flowed and the project has stalled.”
WATCH (Nov. 28, 2017): ‘Canada has to wake up’ to Grassy Narrows mercury contamination crisis
The event post went on to say that all but six per cent of Grassy Narrows people have received “no compensation for the intense impacts of the ongoing mercury crisis on their health, culture and livelihood.
“Instead of getting the support they need, they face chronic denial as they live with deep poverty and severe food insecurity.”
Philpott, who has since left the Liberal cabinet, indeed pledged federal funding to the Grassy Narrows First Nation to fund a treatment centre to help people suffering the effects of mercury contamination.
Mercury contamination has been an issue in the area for half a century, after a paper mill located in Dryden, Ont., dumped thousands of kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system in the 1960s.
“This is what they need and should have, and we are very happy to support them in it,” Philpott said at the time.
A health survey published by the Grassy Narrows First Nation last year showed that the health of people there was “significantly worse” than other First Nations in Canada.
The community had fewer elders, and this survey suggested that people there were dying prematurely.
WATCH (July 29, 2014): Minister promises to review the compensation for a northern Ontario First Nation
The Supreme Court of Canada has said it will hear a case over whether Ontario’s provincial government can force Weyerhaeuser Co. and Resolute Forest Products to clean the former mill site in Dryden.
The provincial government had ordered them to clean the site in 2011, but they claimed they had received indemnity.
An Ontario Superior Court judge found in the companies’ favour in 2016, but the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned that ruling.
The government has also been handing out mercury disability payments to over 200 people in the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong communities.
WATCH: Trudeau apologizes for “smug” comments
—With files from Mercedes Stephenson, Amanda Connolly and the Canadian Press