POLITICS
03/28/2019 08:58 EDT | Updated 03/28/2019 12:46 EDT

Trudeau To Grassy Narrows Protester: 'Thank You Very Much For Your Donation'

The prime minister's remarks sparked laughter and applause at a Liberal fundraiser.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized for his response to protesters who interrupted a Liberal fundraiser to press him about helping mercury poisoning victims on the Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Speaking to reporters in Halifax Thursday, Trudeau said he always tries to be respectful to people who express concerns about issues.

"That's how I believe democracies should function and I didn't do that last night," he said. "Last night, I lacked respect towards them and I apologize for that."

While the situation in Grassy Narrows involves both provincial jurisdiction and federal responsibility, Trudeau said he will tap Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan to step up efforts.

'Something that is of real concern'

"It's something that is of real concern and a real piece of the path of reconciliation we must walk on," he said, adding that the Liberal party will fully refund donations made by the protesters.

Trudeau was confronted by a woman while speaking to supporters at Toronto's Omni King Edward Hotel Wednesday evening.

"People in Grassy Narrows are suffering from mercury poisoning. You committed to addressing this crisis," she shouted, after unfurling a banner calling for compensation.

"Thank you for being here," Trudeau said. "Thank you very much for your donation tonight. I really appreciate the donation to the Liberal Party of Canada."

Watch the exchange below:

Trudeau's remarks sparked laughter and applause. The event was for members of the Liberal "Laurier Club," supporters who donate at least $1,500 a year to the party.

A clip of the exchange was shared on social media by protest organizers, who tweeted that "smugger words have never been said."

After the woman was escorted out of the room, Trudeau told the crowd his party welcomes different opinions and perspectives.

"And our commitment to reconciliation continues to be strong and committed. And we will continue to engage."

A journalist from CTV News posted another clip of the exchange with clearer audio of Trudeau's response.

Trudeau similarly thanked another protester for his donation when he interrupted the prime minister's remarks to ask if he'd be willing to wait 500 days if his family was suffering from mercury poisoning.

"If it was your family, would you accept it? Would you accept 500 days for one per cent?" the man asked.

Tijana Martin/Canadian Press
Protestors hold a sign outside the Liberal party Laurier Club event in Toronto on March 27, 2019.

A Facebook group promoting the demonstration noted that the Liberal government committed in November 2017 to build a treatment facility on Grassy Narrows for those suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning. The pledge was made by then-Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott, who said in December the government was working to support the construction.

"Nearly five hundred days later, only [one per cent] of the cost to build the facility has flowed and the project is stalled," the Facebook page reads.

More from HuffPost Canada:

Grassy Narrows and the Wabaseemoong (White Dog) First Nation, both in northern Ontario, have dealt with the effects of mercury poisoning for decades. A local river was doused with waste mercury from an upstream chemical plant in the 1960s and 1970s, contaminating the water, the fish that live in it, and the people who consumed both.

The symptoms of mercury poisoning include impaired peripheral vision, muscle weakness, impaired speech, hearing and cognitive function and numbness or stinging pain in the extremities and mouth. The damage from prolonged exposure can be irreversible.Japanese researchers reported in 2016 that more than 90 per cent of the people in Grassy Narrows and the Wabaseemoong (White Dog) First Nation show signs of mercury poisoning, including a new generation of residents.

What a smug, mean, aloof ass.NDP MP Charlie Angus

Trudeau has long said that no relationship is more important to his government than the one with Indigenous peoples. Yet, the prime minister's remarks to party supporters did not sit well with rival MPs.

"You smug, arrogant... that thing you called Peter Kent once upon a time," Tory MP Michelle Rempel tweeted about the clip. In 2011, Trudeau famously called Kent a "piece of shit" in the House of Commons.

"What a smug, mean, aloof ass," offered NDP MP Charlie Angus.

Romeo Saganash, the NDP critic for reconciliation, called it "another telling episode about how [Trudeau] really doesn't... care about Indigenous Rights and people."

Saganash was alluding to his own unparliamentary language in the House last September, where he charged Trudeau "doesn't give a fuck" about the rights of Indigenous peoples.

With files from The Canadian Press