Ottawa has made yet another promise to Grassy Narrows as the community is one step closer to realizing a vision for an on-reserve care home for those dealing with the devastating effects of mercury poisoning.
There is no money for long-term operations and maintenance included in the $19.5-million framework agreement to build the facility, which was signed on April 2 by Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek, commonly called Grassy Narrows First Nation, and the federal government.
The minister of Indigenous Services (ISC) who signed on behalf of the government promised to get that money.
Rudy Turtle, chief of Grassy Narrows, hopes he keeps that promise.
“$19.5 million is just for the building itself, but we are in the process of securing another, I think, $68 million and that still has to go to cabinet for approval,” said Turtle, who talked to APTN News from his Grassy Narrows home.
“We’re hoping that the minister doesn’t back down on his word. But so far, we’re very optimistic. He’s kept his word all along – this new minister, ISC Minister Marc Miller.”
The care home will be built according to a community-led feasibility study, but the community’s call to establish an over $60-million trust to fund the facility for its estimated 30-year lifespan proved a sticking point in talks.
The plan, according to the 15-page agreement, is for Turtle and Miller to meet to append the agreement with a dollar amount for long-term funds within two weeks after the federal government tables its 2020 budget.
(A conceptualization of the Grassy Narrows Mercury Care Home: Photo: APTN file)
Miller, in a “reflective” mood after signing the “historic” deal, told APTN he has to seek cabinet approval due to the unique nature of the project and large figure sought.
“But I have still to do that, and I’ve given them my promise that I will do so. It has to go through the machinery of government like anything else.”
Normally, the federal government enters into an agreement to build a healthcare facility and then signs a different agreement for ongoing operations and maintenance, Miller explained.
So the demand for guaranteed up-front 30-year operational money was “a bit unusual for a machinery of government perspective, but an entirely reasonable proposition” that required deviation from the traditional model.
“These things take time and they have to go through, particularly for unique situations, an approval process, and large amounts of money need an approval process that is a little longer,” Miller said.
“But we’ve given him our word, and the government of Canada is not going to back down from it.”
Turtle is well aware “these things take time,” as the project has already been years in the making.
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The Trudeau administration committed to building the centre when Chief Simon Fobister and Jane Philpott, minister of Indigenous Services, met in 2017.
Construction was slated to begin in fall 2019.
But nothing was signed and shovels hadn’t hit the dirt by December.
So Turtle visited the Westin hotel in Ottawa for the Assembly of First Nations special assembly where he blasted the government’s “paternalistic” handling of negotiations and questioned the Trudeau administration’s resolve to build.
A day later, December 4, Turtle and the newly-appointed Miller met privately to talk about the community’s concerns.
Although the framework agreement is a legally binding contract, Grassy Narrows will have to wait a bit longer for “the machinery of government” to work through the issue of long-term funding, as Miller put it.
“If there was a sudden turn of events I would be very disappointed,” Turtle said, pointing out that the COVID-19 pandemic is slowing things down.
The federal budget, which had already been delayed until March, was delayed indefinitely because of the novel coronavirus, a global public health crisis that Ottawa rolled out a multi-billion-dollar economic relief package to fight.
Despite that, Turtle is optimistic that Miller will get cabinet’s approval.
And then, at last, they’ll build.
“Once all of that is completed, we are hoping to begin construction as soon as possible.”
Though Miller wouldn’t offer a timeline, he promised to work quick.
“I want to be clear in saying I expect this to be done as quickly as reasonably possible given the fact that we’re in a global pandemic.”
(Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller at the AFN special assembly on December 3. Photo: APTN file.)
Details to be ironed out
Doctors, specialists, and other healthcare professionals will come from outside the community, but Turtle expects the community to benefit from other jobs the facility will create.
“Right now, we’re thinking about 15-20 jobs for our people,” he said.
The government of Ontario will probably provide these outside health professionals. The province’s participation in the agreement is anticipated but not guaranteed. The province can elect not to provide healthcare services for the care home, in which case the parties will have to discuss alternatives, according to the agreement.
“They felt it was an agreement that really needs to be negotiated with the government of Canada,” Miller stated, adding that “the government of Ontario has said that they are fully supportive of this.”
While there is still lots of work to do, Turtle was “very happy” his people will be able to finally build a specialized centre for those suffering from methylmercury poisoning, which has decimated the community for the last 50 years.
Watch more: APTN Investigates: Then The Mercury Hit
Between 1962 and 1970, a chlor-alkali plant operated by Dryden Chemicals Ltd. dumped an estimated nine tons of untreated mercury into the English-Wabigoon system.
Once it entered the water, mercury ripped through the ecosystem by trading up the food chain through processes called bioaccumulation and biomagnification.
This means that the potent neurotoxic chemical started gathering in smaller fish and other organisms. Larger predatory fish accrued large quantities of mercury because they ate many smaller fish, along with the mercury they contained. People and wildlife who ate those larger fish were then poisoned.
Mercury attacks the nervous system which results in tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction among other things, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Both Grassy Narrows and Whitedog, a different community which is part of Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, are downstream from the pollution, which is not yet resolved.
A group of scientists that studied the former chlor-alkali plant in 2017 concluded there is “strong evidence that the old plant is still leaking old mercury into the river.”
Turtle noted that building the treatment facility is one of many things that still needs to be done.
“It’s been a long, hard-fought victory, and it’s taken years. We never compromised. The first offer that was given to us we said no and we stood our ground and we got to where we are today by being firm.”