FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION – The dream of an elder care facility on Fort William First Nation could take a major step closer to reality Saturday.
A referendum open to Fort William First Nation (FWFN) members could give the go-ahead to a First Nations-operated long-term care home that would prioritize access for elders in 13 Robinson-Superior First Nations, including FWFN.
If passed, the referendum will allow the First Nation to lease a parcel of land just east of its community centre on Anemki Drive to Dilico Anishnabek Family Care for the creation of a 96-bed facility.
FWFN Chief Peter Collins hoped members would support the proposal, which he said would be transformative for elders and their families. The facility would also create significant employment opportunities for FWFN members, he added.
The project responds to a general shortage of local LTC beds, as well as the desire among many elders and their families to access care within their community.
“We have a lot of folks that are housed in the city right now, and we have more that are looking to be in [care],” he said. “We’re dealing with a person in our community right now that can’t get back into a long-term care facility because of overcrowding – there’s no beds left for them. It’s important to keep our folks in our community.”
Funding for the project has not yet been secured, with the First Nations waiting on a hoped-for $10 to $12 million contribution from the federal government – about a third of total estimated construction costs. The remainder would be financed by Dilico and the 13 First Nations.
“We’re still working on it,” Collins said Saturday. “The numbers are just marginal without the federal contribution. We don’t want to be a failure – we want this project to be successful for the long term. The federal contribution is an important part of what we do next.”
Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski said last month that participation in the project by the federal government would be in the spirit of reconciliation, but warned it had not traditionally funded LTC homes on First Nations.
"Indigenous Affairs, historically, has not funded chronic care homes on reserves,” he said. “I think our government realizes this is a desirable project, but it's a matter of finding the pot of money in order to back it up."
Operating costs would be supported with per diem contributions from the provincial government.
The care home would prioritize members of the 13 First Nation signatories to the Robinson-Superior Treaty served by Dilico, FWFN legal counsel Mike Strickland said in an information session held in September.
“There’s going to be preferential treatment to those persons who are of Anishnabek descent [and] members of the Robinson-Superior Treaty,” he said.
Initiatives would also prioritize training and hiring members of the 13 First Nations. Collins estimated there would be over 100 permanent positions available, and a similar number of temporary construction jobs.
“We’re looking to ensure there are going to be training mechanisms in place in that joint venture with Dilico, so it’s your members and members of other First Nations that are part of Robinson-Superior who have the training and can get the jobs here on the reserve,” Strickland told FWFN members.
Construction is estimated to take about two years and could begin as early as the spring, Collins said.
A land designation referendum is required under Canada’s Indian Act in order for a First Nation to designate interest in reserve land to an outside party such as Dilico. The land will not lose reserve status.
Voting is open to FWFN members 18 years of age and older. The First Nation has over 2,000 members including those living off-reserve, who were sent mail-in ballots in advance of the vote.
Polls were open at the FWFN community centre from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. Collins expected results – decided by simple majority – to be announced shortly after polls closed.
The site for the facility was selected by FWFN elders, Collins said, and received support from 93 per cent of respondents during consultations led by consultants Oshki-Aki Engineering and FORM Architecture.
The chief saw it as a perfect location.
“The backdrop is the nature of our community and the the forest,” he said. “It gives them that sense of comfort and the reality of where they come from.”
The home would “provide services in a culturally appropriate Indigenous environment” and “recognize the value of Indigenous healing practices,” according to September’s presentation to community members.
The 96-bed facility is designed to accommodate future expansion that would boost its capacity to 128 beds.
First Nations that would be served by the care home include: Animbigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek (Rocky Bay), Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek (Sandpoint), Fort William, Ginoogaming, Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek (Gull Bay), Long Lake #58, Michipicoten, Pawgwasheeng (Pays Plat), Pic Mobert, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg (Pic River), Red Rock (Lake Helen), and Whitesand.