A proposal to create the first purpose-built medical boarding home in Ottawa for Inuit has been met with a force of local opposition.
With the city’s planning committee set to vote on the development, arguments over land use will run headlong into concerns that some in the community don’t value Inuit health care.
A new building for Larga Baffin, a boarding home for Inuit attending medical appointments in Ottawa, is slated for Hunt Club Road and Sieveright Avenue, an intersection just south of Bank Street and south of downtown.
The current location on Richmond Road is regularly overcapacity, with staff booking additional patients in local hotels.
The planning firm described the project as akin to the Ronald McDonald House, with guests sometimes coming for short stays to see a specialist, while others stay several months to receive treatment for more involved procedures.
An application to increase the new building’s height by an additional four metres in some places and two storeys in others is set to go before planning committee starting 9:30 a.m. ET Thursday.
City staff recommend that the changes to the official plan go ahead, but note in their report that 350 comments were collected in the consultation process — 100 in favour of the proposal and 250 against.
In a summary of the comments received, staff noted there was “great concern” about increased crime and drug use, along with worries about loitering and decreasing property values as a result of the facility.
“Residents believe the facility caters to an audience outside Ottawa and does not benefit the community directly,” the report said.
Councillor against current proposal
Coun. Diane Deans, who represents the ward where the building would go, said she’s opposed to it “in its current form.”
In April, Deans held a public meeting that nearly 300 people attended virtually. Many against the project raised concerns from increased traffic to “unlawful activities” to Nunavut’s high smoking rates and as a result, the need for more parkland to accommodate tenants.
One neighbour, who identified herself only as Madalaine on the Zoom call, was concerned the building would affect water pressure for the homes that border the proposed property.
“We are here first,” she told the meeting.
Other residents concerned about increased traffic said the location wasn’t right for Inuit because it was already on a busy road.
“My goal is to ensure that this facility, in its final form, is compatible with the existing residential neighbourhoods and that community concerns are addressed,” Deans said in the staff report to planning committee.
Deans, who is not a planning committee member, declined an interview. In an email to CBC said she acknowledges the merit of the facility, but its importance isn’t relevant to the land use concerns she is passing along.
“We are proud to host these types of facilities in our city and in our communities,” she said.
Harry Flaherty, board chair of Larga Baffin Ltd., said at the meeting this facility is necessary as it is the only means available for Inuit from Nunavut to access medical services.
‘Misguided and racist comments’
Katherine Takpannie’s mother is one of those Nunavut residents.
She’s currently admitted to an Ottawa hospital, but has stayed at Larga Baffin when getting her knees replaced and while seeking treatment for a brain tumour.
Takpannie, an artist who lives in Ottawa, was alerted to the meeting when comments from it were tweeted and shared widely within the Inuit community.
“I can feel my nervous system and I can feel my blood rising,” Takpannie said just recalling the meeting. “There were a lot of misguided and racist comments.”
For Takpannie the not-in-my-backyard pushback is another discriminatory barrier limiting Inuit access to adequate health care.
Takpannie recently gained access to her mother’s medical records and found comments where her mother was “confused as a drunk” though she’s been sober 25 years and helping other Inuit in her job with the government of Nunavut.
“If you are Indigenous it’s all very subtle … microaggressions, but they’re not micro and they’re very aggressive,” she said.
She also pointed to several studies, including one from Tunngasugit Inuit, which called on the city to do more to combat the fact that Inuit who get treatment in Ottawa have significantly worse health outcomes than non-Inuit patients.
When Inuit advicate and Larga Baffin pastor Manitok Thompson heard about the plans, she started dreaming.
Thinking of mothers in the city for cancer treatment with their young kids, she wanted a playground and a library and a sewing room for those families.
“It’s a different world altogether. And for you to be comfortable somewhere would help a lot … that will ease the loneliness and the homesickness.”
Thompson said she was shocked to hear some of the comments made at the meeting and called racism “old-fashioned.”
“We’re just another human being. Some of us have problems. Some of us don’t. But we are not one blob of a problem,” she said.
“We’re not here to make anybody uncomfortable. We’re just here because we’re in pain.”
Traffic concerns unfounded, project manager says
The number one concern from residents is traffic, according to Bill McCurdy, whose firm Creva Group Ltd. does project management work for Larga Baffin.
“We’re actually minimizing traffic impacts and certainly providing a nice buffer between the residential neighbourhoods,” McCurdy said.
Because they are coming from Nunavut, all Larga Baffin’s clients fly into Ottawa. They are then shuttled to their appointments in Larga vehicles.
Currently the land has warehouses, a garage and car dealership on it, which he said likely generate more traffic than Larga will.
McCurdy said Larga Baffin has a good relationship with its Richmond Road neighbours.
There were “growing pains,” when they moved into the building that had been a retirement home, but the issues were rectified. Concerns about residents smoking on the sidewalk were addressed when a smoking area was built on the property.
Though the particulars of the site plan will be determined after the zoning is confirmed, the new building is set to have 220 rooms, with 350 beds, a kitchen and community space for tenants as well as a landscaped outdoor area.
If the zoning application is approved the building is expected to be completed in the next three to five years.