A proposal to create the first custom-built medical boarding house in Ottawa for Inuit has been met with a force of local resistance.
With the city’s planning committee set to vote on the development, arguments about land use will run headlong into concerns that some in the community do not value Inuit health care.
A new building for Larga Baffin, a guest house for Inuit attending medical appointments in Ottawa, is planned for Hunt Club Road and Sieveright Avenue, a junction just south of Bank Street and south of downtown.
The current location on Richmond Road is regularly overcapacity, and staff reserve additional patients at local hotels.
The planning firm described the project as akin to Ronald McDonald House, where guests sometimes come for short stays to see a specialist, while others stay several months to receive treatment for more involved procedures.
An application to increase the height of the new building by a further four meters in some places and two floors elsewhere must be submitted to the planning committee, which starts at. 9.30 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 for the proposal and 250 against.
In a summary of the comments received, staff noted that there was “great concern” about increased crime and drug use, along with concerns about strolling and declining property values as a result of the facility.
“Residents believe the facility is aimed at an audience outside of Ottawa and does not directly benefit the community,” the report said.
Councilor against current proposal
grev. Diane Deans, who represents the department where the building is going, said she is against it “in its current form.”
In April, deans held a public meeting attended by nearly 300 people virtually. Many against the project raised concerns from increased traffic to “illegal activities” to Nunavut’s high smoking numbers and, as a result, the need for more parkland to accommodate tenants.
A neighbor who only identified himself as Madalaine on the Zoom call was concerned that the building would affect the water pressure of the homes adjacent to the proposed property.
“We are here first,” she told the meeting.
Other residents, concerned about increased traffic, said the location was not 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 existing residential neighborhoods and that community concerns are addressed,” deans said in the staff report to the planning committee.
The deans, who are not members of the planning committee, declined an interview. In an email to CBC, Deans said she recognizes the benefits of the facility, but its significance is not relevant to the land use concerns she passes on.
“We are proud to host these types of facilities in our city and in our communities,” she said.
Harry Flaherty, Chairman of the Board of Larga Baffin Ltd., said at the meeting that the facility is necessary because it is the only available way for Inuit from Nunavut to access medical services.
‘Misleading and racist comments’
Katherine Takpannie’s mother is one of these Nunavut residents.
She is currently in an Ottawa hospital, but has been staying at Larga Baffin when she had her knees replaced and while seeking treatment for a brain tumor.
Takpannie, an artist living in Ottawa, was warned about 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 rise,” Takpannie said, remembering the meeting back. “There were many misleading and racist comments.”
For Takpannie, not-in-my-backyard pushback is another discriminatory barrier that restricts Inuit access to appropriate health care.
Takpannie recently accessed her mother’s medical records and found comments that her mother was “confused as a drunk,” even though she has been sober for 25 years, helping other Inuit in her job with Nunavut’s government.
“If you’re a native, 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 Tungasuvvingat Inuit, which called on the city to do more to combat the fact that Inuit receiving treatment in Ottawa have significantly poorer health outcomes than non-Inuit patients.
When Inuit lawyer and Larga Baffin pastor Manitok Thompson heard about the plans, she began dreaming.
When she thought of mothers in the city for cancer treatment with their young children, she wanted a playground and a library and a sewing room for these families.
“It’s a whole other world. And for you to be comfortable somewhere it would help a lot… it would ease the loneliness and homesickness.”
Thompson said she was shocked to hear some of the comments at the meeting, calling racism “old-fashioned.”
“We are just another human being. Some of us have problems. Some of us do not. But we are not a blob of a problem,” she said.
“We are not here to make anyone uncomfortable. We are here just because we are in pain.”
Traffic concerns are unfounded, says project manager
The biggest concern from residents is traffic, according to Bill McCurdy, whose firm Creva Group Ltd. performs project management work for Larga Baffin.
“We actually minimize traffic impacts and definitely provide a good buffer between residential neighborhoods,” McCurdy said.
Because they come from Nunavut, all of Larga Baffin’s customers fly to Ottawa. They are then shuttled to their appointments in Larga vehicles.
Currently, the ground has department stores, a garage and car dealership, which he said is likely to generate more traffic than Larga will.
McCurdy said Larga Baffin has a good relationship with her neighbors on Richmond Road.
There was “growing pain” as they moved into the building that had been a nursing home, but the problems were fixed. Concerns that residents are smoking on the sidewalk were addressed when a smoking area was built on the property.
Although the details of the plan will be determined after the zoning is confirmed, the new building is set to have 220 rooms with 350 beds, a kitchen and common room for tenants as well as a landscaped outdoor area.
If the zone application is approved, the building is expected to be completed within the next three to five years.