Evidence of meeting #155 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was grassy.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Keith Conn  Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Susan Humphrey  Associate Regional Director General, Strategic Policy Branch, Ontario Region, Department of the Environment
Greg Carreau  Director, Water and Air Quality Bureau, Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, Department of Health
Tom Wong  Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Jennifer Mercer  Director, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Grant Wedge  Assistant Deputy Minister, Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, Government of Ontario
Rudy Turtle  Grassy Narrows First Nation
Frank Miklas  Director, Northern Region, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, Government of Ontario
David Sone  Advisor, Grassy Narrows First Nation

9:10 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

From my perspective, we are applying Jordan's principle. We're committed to working with the community and have developed a collaborative approach and an agreement on the vision forward for the construction of facilities. Build it and they will come; it's not an impediment. The province has signalled in writing that they will be at the table with supports and decisions around accessing specialized hospital services or physician services, so they're there.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

It sounded, certainly earlier, that perhaps it wasn't as robust as we might expect.

In your comments, Mr. Conn, you talked about the minister going to Grassy Narrows to discuss. From my understanding, he went to Grassy Narrows to sign, and his testimony on Tuesday indicated he did go there to sign, not to discuss.

Was Grassy Narrows provided with an MOA prior to the minister's conversation on the telephone the night before he went to Grassy Narrows? Did they have an MOA to look at when the minister had the discussion on the night before he went?

9:10 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

The short answer is yes, there was a draft MOA shared with the community, developed and reviewed and provided with input for its content, describing the intent and the objectives and the two-track approach of the two facilities, as well as a detailed work plan. We were almost there two days before the visit by the minister. I was in attendance at that meeting, and the signals from the chief and other advisers were that we were almost there. It sounded positive and encouraging. Then when the minister arrived to meet with the chief and council and community members, there was a bit of a change in direction. I think it's a technicality.

As I said, the vision is there around the facility itself; it's just a technical issue around the financing.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

There was general agreement, but we always know that the dollars are what matter, so why would you think you could go in and sign an agreement when you hadn't discussed the dollars? To me, that was, first of all, so disappointing for the community. I understand that a feast was planned and all the signals were out there, but we all know that, if you haven't talked the dollars, you haven't really come to an agreement.

9:10 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

I don't think it's about the dollars; it was the mechanism. I think, to be honest, it was a trust issue with the Grassy Narrows First Nation, and rightly so, after many successive governments and not seeing progress or seeing the light of day. I think they wanted some level of assurance around the continuity and predictability and sustainability of funding, so we're working on that issue with a funding agreement that we can contractually oblige this government to commit to.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Again, I think we're talking about some of the most critical pieces of the conversation: what the structure of the support will be in terms of dollars. For that even not to have been in the memorandum of agreement and not part of the conversation, and then your going to the community.... I mean, surely that is such a gap in what happened in this particular case.

Where are we now? I guess we'll certainly hear from Chief Turtle, but what is the issue with the funding?

9:10 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

I think the issue with the funding is that the community had proposed putting this money into a trust, which would take an inordinate amount of time, with more delays. Therefore, what we're proposing is a contractual agreement, a legal agreement, in terms of funding commitments. We have an appreciation from both parties on the scope and magnitude of the resources; it's the mechanism by which we will commit that's at issue. I think we're almost there, and that's something we hope to have a successful conclusion to in a very short period of time.

9:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Sorry, but we've run out of time, and so questioning moves to MP Georgina Jolibois.

9:15 a.m.

NDP

Georgina Jolibois NDP Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, SK

Good morning and thank you.

As I sit here and listen to the presentations, first I'm going to acknowledge my feelings, because as an indigenous MP listening to the presentations, it hurts a whole lot, and I think indigenous people across Canada are very, very upset, because both levels of government have been delaying, delaying, delaying. Studies were done, extensive studies—health impact, and economic studies, and the list goes on. Then I find it really disturbing when Minister O'Regan the other day sat here and said he didn't sign the agreement because...he essentially, basically, blamed Grassy Narrows. I find that very disturbing still.

It leads me to believe that the government is thinking that it knows best. The impression that I have is that Minister O'Regan and the department know better than what the people are asking. The people are frustrated, the people are hurting, the people are sick, the people need more and there's the trust issue—of course the trust issue is there—but the government is delaying, and I find it very difficult and very frustrating.

Going back to the funding, how can we ensure that the funding that Grassy Narrows is asking for...? Grassy Narrows, not the government, is asking for it to be completed ASAP. How can we speed the process up?

9:15 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

The community does know best. This is why they did their engagement processes with community members. They conducted the feasibility with a lot of thought and vision. We're there with them hand in hand to realize that vision. The funding issue is, again, not really the issue; it's the mechanism by which we will commit. Like any other capital project, we are committed to realizing an agreement in terms of its duration, the funding amount and future operation and maintenance of the facility. Those are near the final stages, as we speak, and we will be working with the chief and council to conclude and get the shovel in the ground ASAP.

9:15 a.m.

NDP

Georgina Jolibois NDP Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, SK

We know and your department knows that the Grassy Narrows First Nation is asking for the mercury home trust that you spoke about, but the government isn't supporting that. Can you explain in detail why that is?

9:15 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

My understanding of the trust is that it would take an inordinate amount of time; it's complicated, and it's just adding further delays. We don't want further delays. We want to get the shovel in the ground ASAP.

9:15 a.m.

NDP

Georgina Jolibois NDP Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, SK

The perception right now, though, is that various departments in both levels of government, from Ontario to the federal government, are delaying by playing these kinds of games, again taking that approach where the departments know better than what the communities are asking for. If it were any other community in Ontario, both levels of government would be right there.

For example, just this week Ontario cancelled a really good thing, tree planting, but what did the federal government do? They already committed funding to ensure that the project goes forward. Why is it so difficult for the departments and the ministers to move forward and make that decision? There is a crisis we've identified.

Explain that, please.

9:15 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

In my humble experience, we are trying to build on the experience of getting projects up and running, and the most expeditious way is to find a contractual agreement, a contribution agreement—call it what you will—to expedite the process. A trust fund would simply add delays upon delays, and I think the community is tired of more delays. They want to expedite—

9:20 a.m.

NDP

Georgina Jolibois NDP Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, SK

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

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Questioning now moves to MP Mike Bossio.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Thank you, Chair, and thank you all so much for being here this morning. We appreciate the testimony on this really difficult and complex but long overdue situation to be dealt with at Grassy Narrows.

I can't even imagine what the community must be going through, suffering through decades of a source that continues on and on, generation after generation. It must be very frustrating. I want to follow-up on some of the questions that have already been asked, to try to expand on them a bit.

Here we are. We find ourselves in this situation. What have previous governments done to try to address this issue? Has anyone? Is this the first time that we're actually taking this issue seriously in trying to come to an agreement on something that has been going on for so long?

Mr. Conn.

9:20 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

Our department, Indigenous Services Canada's first nations and Inuit health branch, has been working for many years with the community to conduct environmental impact assessment research that is led and prioritized by the community. We've had that continuous role for decades around providing primary health care services and public health services. I won't speak to the provincial government, but it's obviously public knowledge that they made a commitment to do environmental remediation for the Wabigoon and English rivers.

We have concluded that we want to support the community in terms of realizing its vision around the construction of the facility. We're there. We're on the same page. It's simply a matter of getting on with signing an agreement.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Is it finally taking Jordan's principle seriously and has that been the catalyst pushing the government towards coming to a resolution on this issue?

9:20 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

As I mentioned earlier, I think in principle—pardon the expression—we are taking the Jordan's principle approach in responding to actually support the community and realize its vision by the construction of the treatment facility and related services. But it demands a partnership approach with the provincial government, which can supply and has willingly stated that it will supply specialized physician services, which falls under their domain, and they are happy to collaborate.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

As a result, have we ever been as close to a resolution agreement with Grassy Narrows as we are today previously?

9:20 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

From my recollection, this is a significant step forward.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

It has been raised that there are funding issues between having a contractual agreement versus a trust fund. The government in its position has decided that a contractual approach is better. Why?

June 6th, 2019 / 9:20 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Keith Conn

A contractual agreement through a contribution agreement is the most expeditious way of getting the resources out to the community to begin clearing the land and for construction to take place.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

But from a long-term standpoint, I think they are looking out further into the future. Is that why they are taking the position on the trust fund and feel it would serve their needs in the long term in a better way? Has that model been used before, and was it successful?