A proposal to create the first purpose-built medical boarding house in Ottawa for Inuit met with local opposition.
With the city’s planning committee due to vote on the development, arguments over land use will head headlong to concerns that some in the community do not appreciate Inuit health care.
A new building for Larga Baffin, a boarding house for Inuit attending medical appointments in Ottawa, is planned 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 overcapacitated, with staff booking additional patients into 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 staying several months to be treated for more complicated procedures.
An application to increase the height of the new building by another four feet in some places and two stories in others will be filed before the planning committee begins Thursday at 9:30 a.m. ET.
City officials recommend that the changes to the official plan go ahead, but note in their report that 350 comments were collected during the consultation process — 100 in favor of the proposal and 250 against.
Summarizing the comments received, staff noted that there were “great concerns” about increased crime and drug use, along with concerns about loitering and declining property values as a result of the facility.
“Residents believe the facility is suitable for a public outside of Ottawa and will not directly benefit the community,” the report said.
Councilor against current proposal
count. Diane Deans, who represents the department where the building would move, said she is against it “in its current form.”
In April, Deans held a public meeting where nearly 300 people were virtually in attendance. Many who opposed the project expressed concerns, from increased traffic to “unlawful activity” to Nunavut’s high smoking rates and, as a result, the need for more parks to accommodate tenants.
A neighbor, who only identified herself as Madalaine during the Zoom call, was concerned that the building would affect water pressure for the houses adjacent to the proposed property.
“We’re here first,” she told the meeting.
Other residents concerned about the increased traffic said the site was not suitable for Inuit as it was already on a busy road.
“My goal is to ensure that this facility, in its final form, is compatible with existing residential areas and addresses community concerns,” Deans said in the staff report to the planning committee.
Deans, who is not a member of the planning committee, declined an interview. In an email to CBC, Deans said she recognizes the merit of the facility, but its importance is irrelevant to the land use concerns she conveys.
“We are proud to host these kinds of facilities in our city and in our communities,” she said.
Harry Flaherty, board chairman of Larga Baffin Ltd., said at the meeting that the facility is needed because it is the only available way for Inuit from Nunavut to access medical services.
‘Inappropriate and racist comments’
Katherine Takpannie’s mother is one of those residents of Nunavut.
She is currently hospitalized in Ottawa, but has stayed with Larga Baffin when she had to have her knees replaced and while she was seeking treatment for a brain tumor.
Takpannie, an artist living in Ottawa, was made aware of the gathering when comments about 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, remembering the meeting. “There were a lot of misplaced and racist comments.”
For Takpannie, the not-in-my-backyard pushback is another discriminatory barrier that limits Inuit access to adequate health care.
Takpannie recently gained access to her mother’s medical records and found comments that her mother was “confused like a drunk” even though she has been sober for 25 years helping other Inuit in her work with the Nunavut government.
“If you’re native, it’s all very subtle… micro-aggressions, but they’re not micro and they’re very aggressive,” she said.
She also pointed to several investigations, including one by Tungasuvvingat Inuit, which called on the city to do more to combat the fact that Inuit treated in Ottawa are significantly worse health outcomes than non-Inuit patients.
When Inuit lawyer and Larga Baffin preacher Manitok Thompson learned of the plans, she began to dream.
She thought about urban mothers treating cancer with their young children, and she wanted a playground, library, and sewing room for those families.
‘It’s a totally different world. And if you were comfortable somewhere, it would be a huge help… it will ease the loneliness and the homesickness.’
Thompson said he was shocked to hear some comments made during the meeting and called racism “old-fashioned.”
“We’re just a different person. Some of us have problems. Some of us don’t. But we’re not one problem,” she said.
“We’re not here to make anyone feel uncomfortable. We’re just here because we’re in pain.”
Traffic concerns unfounded, says project manager
The main concern of residents is traffic, according to Bill McCurdy, whose firm Creva Group Ltd. does project management work for Larga Baffin.
“We minimize traffic impact and certainly provide a nice buffer between residential areas,” McCurdy said.
Being from Nunavut, all Larga Baffin’s customers fly to Ottawa. They are then taken to their appointments in Larga vehicles.
Currently, the country has warehouses, a garage and a car dealership, which he says probably generates more traffic than Larga will.
McCurdy said Larga Baffin has a good relationship with his neighbors on Richmond Road.
There were “growing pains” as they entered the building that had been a retirement home, but the problems were resolved. Concerns about smoking residents on the sidewalk were addressed when a smoking area was built on the property.
While details of the site plan will be determined after zoning is confirmed, the new building will have 220 rooms, with 350 beds, a kitchen and common area for tenants, as well as a landscaped outdoor area.
If the zoning plan is approved, the building is expected to be completed in the next three to five years.