A key barrier to the development of a mercury care home in Grassy Narrows First Nation seems cleared after a Northern Ontario health official committed to covering the cost of doctors and other specialists.
In a May 29 letter to a director of the North West Local Health Integration Network, Ray Racette, president and CEO of Lake of the Woods District Hospital, said the hospital has the money within its existing funds to pay doctors who would go to the home to treat mercury-poisoned residents.
“They will need some physician resources. We wanted to make sure that would not be an impediment for them to begin,” Racette told the Star, adding that hospital physician payment funds will support “specialist services like neurology, internal medicine, psychiatry. We thought that would be one way we could help.”
The federal government said in 2017 that it would help build a care home for those suffering from mercury poisoning. In a letter to the chief, then-Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott committed to funding a feasibility study “as well as the construction and operation of the treatment centre … once the design work and programming is ready.”
Chief Rudy Turtle had said, however, that development of the home had stalled, with the government only paying for the $170,000 feasibility study, which has been completed. Turtle had said officials told him Ottawa won’t spend more until the provincial government commits to covering some of the medical care provided in the home.
After seeing the Lake of the Woods hospital commitment, Chief Turtle said in a statement this week: “The only thing stopping the Trudeau government from fulfilling its promise to Grassy Narrows to build and operate a Mercury Care Home is political will. This letter makes clear that the Minister’s question about provincial services … is no longer an issue.”
The care home is estimated to cost $17 million to build and $70 million to operate for 30 years, according to a community source. The facility could include rooms for multiple residents, an exam room and customized showers and tubs — all essential and not currently offered by the community clinic. Such a facility could also be a home for palliative care, physiotherapy, counselling and traditional healing.
Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O‘Regan said in a statement that “Building a health facility in Grassy Narrows is our priority and we are continuing to work with Chief Turtle and Council to get shovels in the ground as soon as possible.
“The people of Grassy Narrows have suffered for over 50 years and we share the goal of reaching a solution that meets the community’s immediate and long-term health needs.”
Funds will flow again, O’Regan said, once a “contribution agreement” is signed.
O’Regan went to Grassy Narrows three weeks ago but left without a deal.
Details of the proposed agreement are not public, though Turtle said this week that the offer does not provide enough certainty or money to get the job done. “This leaves us at the mercy of the next government and makes us fear that our parents, our siblings, and our children will not get the care that they need to ease their suffering,” Turtle said.
Grassy Narrows leaders fear construction won’t begin before the October election, and they want money for the home put in a trust to make the federal commitment immune to shifting political winds.
This is what happened in Ontario when Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government put $85 million in a trust for the cleanup of the river that feeds the community.
“It has taken over 500 days to get the Mercury Care Home one per cent of the way to completion. With the federal election looming, the future of this project is highly uncertain,” Turtle told the Star. “We need to be sure that the promised Mercury Care Home will be built and will provide the level of care that our loved ones need to ease their suffering. The only way to have that certainty is to place the funds in a trust.”
The government did not answer a question about whether it would put money into a trust.
During the 1960s, the Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River that feeds Grassy Narrows downstream. The potent neurotoxin contaminated the fish and poisoned the people who ate it. They developed tremors, slurred speech, impaired hearing, tunnel vision and lost muscle co-ordination. The mercury is still in the ground, river and fish.
While the governments are paying more attention, community members are still sick and feel they are not getting the support they need.
Recent research by Dr. Donna Mergler revealed that Grassy Narrows children whose mothers ate fish at least once a week while pregnant are four times more likely to have a nervous system disorder or learning disability that is slowing their efforts in school. Those children were compared to Grassy Narrows children whose mothers hardly ever ate fish.
That research is part of an ongoing, comprehensive study that has also found the adults of Grassy Narrows report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts compared to other First Nations adults.
David Bruser is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @DavidBruser