Thunder Bay

No agreement between Ottawa, Grassy Narrows over proposed mercury care centre before election call

Talks between Grassy Narrows First Nation and the federal government aimed at reaching an agreement over a proposed on-reserve care facility for people suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning broke off over the summer.

Indigenous Services Minister's office says meetings were making progress

No agreement was reached over a mercury medical treatment facility between Grassy Narrows and the federal government prior to Wednesday's election call. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Talks between Grassy Narrows First Nation and the federal government aimed at reaching an agreement over a proposed on-reserve care facility for people suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning broke off over the summer, as the two sides could not reach a consensus on the facility's design and operation prior to Wednesday's official dissolution of Parliament.

Representatives from the northwestern Ontario First Nation say larger issues needed to be worked out between now-former Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan and Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle before more detailed, technical meetings could make headway.

Meanwhile O'Regan's office says those staff-level discussions with experts on both sides — not high-level talks between elected officials — were the most appropriate place to resolve outstanding issues and they were making progress.

The discussions between Grassy Narrows representatives, called a technical team, and staff at Indigenous Services Canada were aimed at working out everything from the design, architecture and engineering of the care home to what specific health services would be provided.

Those talks stopped in late July because "we were waiting for the minister [O'Regan] and [Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle] to meet," said Robert Williamson, the northwestern Ontario First Nation's project manager, who was also part of the team meeting with federal staff.

Turtle was nominated in July by the New Democrats to run in the Kenora riding in the October federal election.

"We need high-level negotiations before even the technical team can come to some sort of progress in our meetings," Williamson continued. "The bureaucrats themselves that we are meeting [with] ... don't really have any authority to solve the problems that we have and they can't go beyond what the minister has authorized."

Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle (left) is the federal NDP candidate for the Kenora riding. (Canadian Press/Justin Tang)

"The minister is refusing to meet with the chief at this time and he keeps trying to send it back down to the bureaucrats," Williamson added.

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, 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.

Ottawa remains "steadfast" in its commitment to see the facility built, O'Regan's office said in email statement to CBC News, adding that "we will continue discussions on this with community leadership until we reach a consensus."

Williamson said the disagreements that arose included the overall cost for the facility; the community has said the design it proposed in its feasibility studies would cost about $19 million, while Ottawa came to the table with a design and concept closer to $10 million. Williamson said Grassy Narrows favours more of a care home setup, similar to a retirement home, and that the federal proposal was more akin to a medical centre.

"Their concept of treatment and their concept of the program is different from what we have in mind."

However, federal officials said the final cost, design and services provided would ultimately be determined by what was agreed to in the technical meetings.

"We continue to believe that the health and engineering experts on the technical working group are the best [place] to make this happen, and the minister remains closely engaged on their progress," O'Regan's office said.

"Because this concerns a health facility, these experts are vital in determining the specific details — engineering, architecture, health services — to ensure that the facility best reflects the needs of community members and that it achieves the best health outcomes."

Grassy Narrows First Nation is about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora, Ont. (CBC)

"Our teams have been working well together, and were making progress towards an agreement," the statement said.

Williamson said he's not sure what negotiations will look like after the federal election, when a new minister could hold the portfolio, or a different party form government.

"We are very concerned," he said. "We're thinking that it's going to be pretty hard to come to some sort of an agreement with them right now."

Williamson, who told CBC News at a protest in Toronto earlier in September that he also suffers from symptoms of mercury poisoning, including weakening of the muscles, difficulty swallowing and tremors, said he wants to see progress.

"I try not to think about the fact that I will end up there," he said of the proposed care home. "But when I do, I want to be able to be in a place where I can be safe as long as I can."

With files from CBC Toronto