First, a confession: A few weeks ago, I lied on the CBC’s At Issue panel — or, at least, I delivered a partial truth. Asked by host Ian Hanomansing whether the SNC-Lavalin affair made me angry, I answered that I don’t do anger because it gets in the way of thinking clearly.
That was true as far as the crisis that has been dominating Canadian politics is concerned.
Over the six weeks of the SNC-Lavalin saga, I have been curious as to its root cause and saddened by the deterioration of the relationship between the prime minister and two of the talented women he recruited in the last election.
I have also been somewhat bewildered by the fact that those who seem to have arrived at the unshakable conclusion that Justin Trudeau is guilty of mortal sins against the justice system have often been the most vociferous in arguing that Canadians do not yet have all the facts they need to make up their minds.
But this week, for the first time, I did feel real anger and, notwithstanding my answer on the CBC, this column is partly written in anger.
I was a junior radio news editor in the Toronto newsroom of Radio-Canada when I first heard about the mercury poisoning of the Indigenous communities of Grassy Narrows and White Dog.
The story surfaced in the early 1970s, a time when Canada was still relatively innocent about damages to the environment. Ontario’s ministry of the environment was only a few years old, and the federal government would not have a stand-alone department until the end of that decade.
The notion that entire communities could be contaminated with a deadly poison because of air they breathed, the water they drank or, in this case, the fish they depended on for food, was foreign to many of us.
The Japanese though already had a name for what ailed the two Northwestern Ontario communities. They called it Minamata disease from the name of the bay whose mercury-contaminated waters had devastated the health of the communities that fished them.
When Japanese experts first visited Grassy Narrows and Whitedog and found evidence that a similar health crisis was underway, then-Ontario Natural Resources minister Leo Bernier dismissed them as “Japanese troubadours.”
More than 40 years have elapsed since the July morning when I edited reports about the mercury contamination of the English-Wabigoon river system. I am confounded by the notion that the issue is as alive today as it was then, and by what that says about how this country fails its Indigenous peoples.
Canada has had more than half-a-dozen prime ministers since the situation came to light under Pierre Trudeau’s government, and more than 20 ministers of the environment and Indian Affairs.
Over the same period, Ontario has been governed by parties of three political stripes, including some who professed deep commitments to the environment and/or to the welfare of the First Nations.
And still those Indigenous communities struggle with the consequences of mercury poisoning and have to fight for every inch of government help they get.
For years, they were told the river would eventually clean itself. It did not.
It was only two years ago that a medical centre was promised to the community.
The CBC and the Star, to name just two media organizations, have devoted journalistic resources to document and keep this story in the public eye for decades.
And so, when the prime minister — with the general approval of the well-heeled party donors he was rewarding with his presence on Wednesday night — sarcastically dismissed an Indigenous rights activist who had paid her way into his fundraising venue to call his attention to the enduring plight of the people of Grassy Narrows, his performance was beyond words.
Trudeau did not even have the excuse — used by leader of the opposition Andrew Scheer to explain why he let patently false assertions connecting Hillary Clinton to a child sex ring stand at a recent town hall — of not having heard the protest or known what it was about.
The demonstrator unfurled a banner in his face.
Trudeau’s behaviour was out of character. He has since apologized publicly.
His put-down could be construed as a symptom of the impact the SNC-Lavalin affair is having on his performance. There is no doubt the prime minister has increasingly looked anchorless over the course of the ongoing crisis.
Trudeau coupled his apology with a commitment to turn more of his attention to the Grassy Narrows predicament. Maybe he will. But he is hardly the first to make promises.
Would it make a difference if we expended as much energy on keeping his feet to that fire as we have on pursing every SNC-Lavalin angle? I don’t know.
But I am somewhat thankful to the prime minister for having reminded me that some matters are more worth being profoundly angry about than others.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert