Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan has said the government is committed to building a care home to help the sickest of those impacted by the industrial mercury poisoning of Grassy Narrows First Nation.
The money is “booked” and “approved,” and the funding agreement the government wants the Indigenous community’s leaders to sign is “for keeps” and “legally binding,” he told CBC in June, adding that Chief Rudy Turtle will have “certainty … of our commitment financially.”
After reading the proposed funding agreement, Turtle said he does not have that certainty. The document, he said, is “the opposite of what O’Regan promised me and what he is telling the public.”
A draft of the proposed agreement obtained by the Star says Ottawa will contribute $10.5 million — far less than the total cost to build, according to a feasibility study — and that Ottawa can walk away from the deal for any reason with 60-days notice.
The draft also says the government may increase or decrease funding “based on approval of proposals or submissions from Grassy Narrows” and that ongoing funding for the construction of the home is dependent on annual approvals by Parliament.
“(O’Regan) said it would be impossible for Canada to back out, but in writing it says that Canada can choose to terminate at any point without any conditions or penalties. How does that add up?” Turtle said.
In a statement, the government said such language is standard contractual wording and is not a reflection of Indigenous Services’ record on following through on its promises. “Officials have analyzed records related to past agreements and found that — of the thousands of funding agreements entered into by ISC annually — there has not been a case where an agreement was cancelled unilaterally by Canada,” the statement said.
O’Regan’s office also issued a statement, saying “we remain steadfast in our commitment to build a health facility in the community.”
A government source told the Star that the proposed agreement’s wording is now being reviewed by officials so that it satisfies both sides.
As for the amount offered in the draft agreement, Indigenous Services said it is to cover the cost of building the home only. An amendment or another agreement will be drawn up to deal with the operations and maintenance costs, the draft agreement says.
The care home is estimated to cost $19.5 million to build and close to $70 million to operate for 30 years. The facility would include rooms for 22 full-time residents, an exam room and customized showers and tubs — all not currently offered by the community clinic. Such a facility could also be a home for palliative care, physiotherapy, counselling and traditional healing.
For years Grassy Narrows leaders have been asking for help for survivors of the pollution. Many residents have had to leave the community to get the care they need in Kenora, Ont. — an hour and a half to the southwest — or other towns and cities farther from home. After a long battle with a degenerative neurological disorder, former chief and care home advocate Steve Fobister died last year, not at home close to his relatives and culture, but in a Kenora hospital after shuttling between there and a Thunder Bay facility 600 kilometres from Grassy Narrows.
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 river’s fish and poisoned the people who ate them. The community’s residents developed tremors, slurred speech, impaired hearing, tunnel vision and lost muscle co-ordination.
Over the past three years, the Star and scientists have revealed that fish near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province, that there are mercury-contaminated soil and river sediments at or near the site of the old mill, and that the provincial government knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under that site and never told anyone in Grassy Narrows or nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations. Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and pollutes the river.
In 2017, while these findings were coming to light and soon after the Star found mercury-tainted soil behind the mill, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office said that Ottawa wanted to help “deal with this issue once and for all.” In a letter to the chief later that year, then-Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott committed to funding a feasibility study of a care home “as well as the construction and operation … once the design work and programming is ready.”
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Chief Rudy Turtle had said earlier this year, however, that development of the home had stalled, with the government only paying for the feasibility study. 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.
But that barrier cleared in late May after a northern Ontario health official committed to covering the cost of doctors and other specialists.
The government sent Turtle its care home funding offer on June 7.
“The government has always tried to tell Grassy Narrows that they know what is best for us. Look where that has gotten us,” Turtle said. “We believed that this government would be different. But with this agreement, we see that Canada is still up to its old tricks. We have had enough of broken promises and bad deals.”
The Trudeau government has come under criticism for sometimes faltering on its pledge to improve government’s treatment of Indigenous communities. In a recent opinion article for the Star, Niki Ashton, the NDP deputy critic for reconciliation and MP for the nearby Manitoba riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, cited the Grassy Narrows mercury care home and other Indigenous community needs, writing: “This government will champion First Nations when it’s convenient and justifies its pro-corporate agenda, but turns its back when it’s hard.”
Trudeau apologized in March after he sarcastically dismissed demonstrators who paid to attend a Liberal fundraiser in Toronto to voice concern about the mercury poisoning of Grassy Narrows.
“We recognize that the community of Grassy Narrows has been affected by mercury in the English-Wabigoon river system and suffers health issues to this day,” O’Regan’s office said in a statement. “We will continue discussions on this with Chief and Council until we reach a consensus. We will get this facility built.”
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. They want the kind of security Ontario gave in 2017 when it committed $85 million to clean up the river that feeds the community and put the money in a trust.
“For nearly 50 years, government after government has told us to trust them,” Turtle said. “It is long past time for Trudeau to keep his word and fix this problem once and for all. Do it now while it is in your power. This is the time for justice.”
Indigenous Services said it prefers a funding agreement, in part because it is “the fastest tool to get the funds to Grassy Narrows First Nation so the mercury treatment facility can be built in a timely manner.”
The minister’s office said a “technical group” meets to move plans along and that a meeting on Wednesday “was productive.”
David Bruser is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidBruser