Grassy Narrows signs deal with Ottawa on mercury poisoning treatment centre

OTTAWA — The federal government has signed an agreement with Grassy Narrows First Nation that will see a long-promised treatment centre for residents with mercury poisoning finally built in the community.

Chief Rudy Turtle signed the framework agreement with Indigenous Services Canada Thursday, which commits $19.5 million towards the construction of the mercury care home.

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Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the facility will provide access to health services to meet the needs of community residents who are living with methylmercury poisoning.

In December, Turtle and National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations called on the government to end delays in building the centre.

The Liberals promised a specialized treatment facility in 2017 but progress stalled due to a disagreement between Ottawa and the First Nation on the design for the facility.

In a Facebook post published Thursday, Chief Turtle said the agreement is for a 24-bed facility that will allow the people of Grassy Narrows suffering from mercury poisoning to seek treatment in their home community.

The contamination stems from when a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s.

An advocacy group called Free Grassy Narrows, which has been fighting for the mercury care home, called the new agreement an important step, but said the First Nation continues to seek long-term funding for the facility.

"This historic framework agreement is the beginning of an important turning point," Miller said in a statement.

"Reflecting on what should have happened a long time ago, I take great pride and promise in what can be done so that specialized care can be accessed, and close to home. I also recognize the work and trust of Chief Turtle putting what he believes in his heart to be just at the centre of his advocacy."

The mercury care home is one of two distinct projects that the federal government has been working on with Grassy Narrows First Nations leadership. The other project will see the community's current health facility expanded and renovated.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020.

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