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Federal officials grilled over delays in construction of mercury poisoning care home for Grassy Narrows

Federal officials faced questions from a House of Commons committee Thursday about how Ottawa intends to fund an on-reserve specialized medical facility in Grassy Narrows First Nation to care for people suffering the effects of mercury poisoning.

How to fund a mercury medical treatment facility in Grassy Narrows First Nation was front-and-centre at Thursday’s meeting of the House of Commons standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Federal officials faced questions from a House of Commons committee Thursday about how Ottawa intends to fund an on-reserve specialized medical facility in Grassy Narrows First Nation to care for people suffering the effects of mercury poisoning.

The officials appeared before a standing committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs looking into why an agreement to fund the care home has not yet been secured between the federal government and the leadership of Grassy Narrows, located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora, Ont., in northwestern Ontario.

Chief Rudy Turtle also addressed the committee of Liberal, Conservative and NDP MPs, reiterating the need for an acceptable agreement with Ottawa and for work on the facility to begin immediately.

“How can we ensure that the funding that Grassy Narrows is asking — Grassy Narrows, not the government, Grassy Narrows — is asking to be completed, like ASAP?” Georgina Jolibois, the New Democrat MP for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River asked.

4½ hour meeting failed to yield agreement

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan visited Grassy Narrows on May 28 expecting to sign a memorandum of agreement to outline “a path forward” to deal with the “long-term health needs of the community, which has been impacted by exposure to mercury.”

Residents of the First Nation, along with Wabaseemong Independent Nations, have long suffered the effects of exposure to mercury from effluent discharged into the English-Wabigoon River system throughout most of the 1960s and into the early 1970s from a pulp and paper mill in in Dryden, Ont., owned by Reed Paper at the time.

Grassy Narrows First Nation is about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora in northwestern Ontario. (CBC)

After a four-and-a half hour meeting in Grassy Narrows, that signing didn’t happen. Turtle said part of the reason was that the agreement fell short in the scope of what services would be provided in the proposed mercury treatment facility.

Another issue was that there was nothing in the agreement that would lock the $88.7 million that the First Nation estimate sit will take to build and operate the facility over 30 years into a trust, as had been the case when the former provincial government set aside $85 million for cleaning up the contaminated river.

Grassy Narrows leaders said they want federal money secured in a trust to protect it against any changes in government or budgetary priorities. They, along with advocates for the community, have been pushing Ottawa to follow through on a promise by former Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott in 2017, when she committed to building the health care facility.

“I need to see that the money to finish the job is there and cannot be taken away,” Turtle told the committee. “After so many words, we need action that our people can rely on.”

Government prefers contribution agreement over trust fund

Members of the committee asked a number of questions on Thursday about why such as trust has not been established.

Keith Conn, the assistant deputy minister for Indigenous Services Canada’s First Nations and Inuit health branch, said setting up a trust would “take an inordinate amount of time.”

“It’s complicated,” he said. “It’s just adding further delays. We don’t want further delays. We want to get the shovel in the ground.”

Rudy Turtle is the chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Conn said contribution agreements, not trust funds, are the standard way of annually allocating government funds for specific uses.

“All our other programs and services and capital infrastructure works demand that there’s ongoing funding on a year-to-year basis for the community,” he said.

But that explanation did not satisfy Jolibois.

“Again, for the record, the community is asking for that trust fund, and the department, and the government wants to take it somewhere else,” she said. “That’s the problem.”

We can ‘chew gum and walk’

Other MPs on the committee wondered why, if time and complexity are issues with establishing a trust, construction on the home can’t start while the details of a secure fund are worked out.

“I don’t understand why those two issues are mutually exclusive,” said Gordie Hogg, the Liberal MP for South Surrey—White Rock.

Cathy McLeod, the Conservative critic for Indigenous affairs and MP for Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, agreed.

“Why are we not starting the building and taking the time? I think we can chew gum and walk.”

Keith Conn is the assistant deputy minister for Indigenous Services Canada’s First Nations and Inuit health branch. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Conn acknowledged “that could be a possible scenario” and said such an idea is “in negotiations.”

Turtle told CBC News after his May 28 meeting with O’Regan that the minister told him that Ottawa would look into establishing a trust fund for the mercury medical facility.

O’Regan said at the time that he was “disappointed” no agreement was reached with Grassy Narrows but that he and Turtle “are committed to getting this done,” and “committed to getting this right.”

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