Thunder Bay

Grassy Narrows leadership to review Ottawa's latest mercury poisoning care home agreement

Canada's Indigenous services minister says he's got another proposed agreement to build a specialized mercury healthcare facility for sufferers of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation but it doesn't include the nearly $89-million-dollar trust leadership of the northwestern Ontario community is looking for.

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan says funding agreement sent to community leadership

A second proposed agreement for a specialized medical facility for people suffering from mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation has been sent by Indigenous Services Canada to the First Nation's leadership. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Canada's Indigenous services minister says he's presented another proposed agreement to build a specialized mercury healthcare facility for sufferers of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation to its leadership but it doesn't include the nearly $89-million-dollar trust that the northwestern Ontario community is looking for.

But Seamus O'Regan said the contribution agreement from Indigenous Services Canada will guarantee the money necessary to start construction of the mercury home immediately, and legally commits the federal government to continue to provide yearly funding to operate it, similar to funding agreements in place in other First Nations.

"That's, I guess, part of our ongoing discussion between the chief and I, it's just allaying any [fears] that he has that we could just walk away from this — or even that a future government could walk away," O'Regan said.

"What I'm trying to do, and assure him of, is that this is binding and this is for keeps."

The community's chief, however, isn't convinced. Rudy Turtle said he still wants the $88.7 million that the First Nation estimates it will take to build and operate the facility over 30 years into a trust. That, Turtle said, will offer an ironclad guarantee that it's safe against any changes in government or spending priorities over the long term.

"We want something secure," Turtle said. "We're not convinced by what they're offering and by what they're telling us."

Turtle said on Friday that he's awaiting a copy of the agreement and he and the community's leadership will review it.

Rudy Turtle is the chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

O'Regan said his funding agreement offers a dollar figure "not far off" from the Grassy Narrows proposal. An official with Indigenous Services Canada told a House of Commons committee Thursday that the department doesn't favour a trust due to the length of time it would take and the complexity involved, as opposed to Ottawa's contribution agreements with First Nations.

That's something Turtle sid he doesn't understand as the former provincial government set aside $85 million in a secure trust for cleaning up the coantaminated English-Wabigoon River system, where Reed Paper, former owners of the mill in Dryden, discharged nearly 9,000 kilograms of mercury-contaminated effluent into the water in the 1960s and early 1970s.

That trust is administered by representatives from the Ontario government, Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemong Independent Nations.

A number of studies have linked elevated levels of mercury in the water to the comparatively poor health of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemong residents.

The proposed project in Grassy Narrows would upgrade and enlarge the community's existing health facility, including equipping it with telemedicine capabilities and commit the federal government to build, and provide annual funding to operate, a separate long-term, assisted care facility with about 25 beds.

It would also have specialized diagnostic capabilities to test people for mercury-related illness, Turtle said, as well as a research component to better study potential treatments.

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

O'Regan's first attempt at putting pen to paper for the project fell through on May 28 when he visited the community, located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora. After a four-and-a-half hour meeting with Turtle, the two didn't sign a proposed memorandum of agreement; the chief said it fell short in scope and detail and didn't include mention of locking money into a trust.

When asked whether Ottawa's funding agreements for these types of projects in First Nations are safe over the long term from cuts or budget reductions, O'Regan insisted they are.

"I've asked staff to look into [that] and we've never found evidence of it," he said of Ottawa slashing operational funding after a contribution agreement was signed. "This is binding, this is a binding agreement and it's one that we sign with communities ... all the time."

When asked whether he's worried Turtle will reject another proposal because it doesn't include a trust, O'Regan said he hopes not.

"I think we both have a common goal and that is looking after the community," he said.

Turtle said the two sides have been making "small steps," but "we need to make big steps, let's put it that way."

A trust fund for the mercury home, Turtle said, would be "a very big step," and "a sigh of relief."

With files from Olivia Stefanovich