Grassy Narrows, Ottawa still meeting on mercury medical home design, cost, funding
Chief Rudy Turtle says technical teams from Grassy Narrows, Indigenous Services Canada meeting but no deal
The chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation says his community and the federal government still haven't agreed on a final design, cost or funding model for a proposed on-reserve facility to treat victims of mercury poisoning.
In 2017, former Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott committed to the construction of a care facility in Grassy Narrows, located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora in northwestern Ontario, to treat people closer to home who are suffering from a wide range of ailments linked to the historical dumping of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system by former owners of the mill upstream in Dryden in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Despite Grassy Narrows submitting feasibility and design studies, the community and the federal government are still proposing different designs for the facility, said Chief Rudy Turtle. Grassy Narrows officials also publicly unveiled conceptual designs for their vision of the treatment home in June; the community's design, he said, is based on the studies already submitted.
The two sides "just can't agree to the design of the building and also the cost," Turtle said. "I guess that's where we're stuck but also ... we can't come to an agreement with the arrangement of funding."
The federal government said it has met with the First Nation as recently as Wednesday, and is committed to getting a mercury home built.
"A technical group is meeting regularly to move forward the plans for the facility—the most recent meeting took place yesterday and was productive. We will continue discussions on this with Chief and Council until we reach a consensus," wrote the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
"We will get this facility built."
The issue of how the facility is to be funded over the long term comes down to the community wanting the $88.7 million it estimates it will cost to build and operate the facility for 30 years locked into a trust, as had been the case when the former provincial government set aside $85 million for cleaning up the contaminated river.
Federal officials still favour a standard contribution agreement that Ottawa uses when allocating project funding to First Nations, arguing that setting up a trust will take too much time.
Federal officials, including Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan, have repeatedly said they're committed to getting an agreement in place quickly and the project funded and completed.
Turtle said the community's proposed design would cost about $19 million to build and that Ottawa is countering with a $10 million proposal. "It's almost like a completely different design," he said, adding that, Grassy Narrows favours more of a care home setup and layout, similar to a retirement home, and that the federal proposal is more like a hospital, including smaller rooms.
"Instead of feeling like they're in a hospital, they're going to feel at home with medical services," Turtle said.
Another phase of a proposed agreement would upgrade and enlarge the existing health facility in Grassy Narrows, including equipping it with telemedicine capabilities.