Grave injustice: Aboriginal group decides not to build on possible Catholic graveyard

Mary Ormsby

Feature Writer, Toronto Star


Joe Hester, Executive Director of Anishnawbe Health Toronto, right, along with Dr. Chandrakant Shah, left, and Jacques Huot President of the Board Orphan's Greenspace .This small dog park on Power St. was a parcel of land the city was going to sell the Health Centre to build a new facility, but the deal fell through. The land in question is believed by some to contain hundreds of remains from an early grave site.



A Toronto aboriginal health care group — desperate to find the perfect property for a new facility — is forfeiting a prized downtown piece of land on moral grounds because of concerns the land may be a Roman Catholic graveyard.

“The irony is not lost on us — due respect where none is given,” says Joe Hester, Anishnawbe Health Toronto’s executive director, noting business rarely halts when aboriginal remains are unearthed by bulldozers clearing ground for subdivisions and roads.

“I think often times, when (aboriginal) burial sites are found, there’s development already in progress and to a large degree, that development continues and our people are an after-thought. Here, we get some information and we respect that. It’s a burial site.”

The decision to leave the bones — and more importantly, the souls of the dead — undisturbed at 51 Power St. is in keeping with native beliefs. It also means another frustrating delay in a decade-long quest to better serve the 85,000 aboriginal men, women and children living in the GTA, a group whose overall health is two to three times lower than the general Canadian population.

Broken promises, empty “cheerleading” support pledges, lost files, government personnel shuffles, funding setbacks tied to changing application rules and an overall lack of political will to support the GTA’s only aboriginal primary care server has been crushing over the years, Hester says.

“It’s a depressing state to be in,’’ says Hester, a Cree with ancestral roots in the James Bay area.

AHT, which has spent more than $200,000 of its own money in responding to Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care requests for its new facility plans, is now considering its legal options.

“Forfeiting the Power St. site for moral reasons, regrettably, makes legal action more likely, either defending a compliance action or pressing a claim for land,” Toronto lawyer David Donnelly wrote in an email, describing the 51 Power St. situation as “stranger than fiction.”

AHT is an accredited community health centre funded through the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network, mandated by the Aboriginal Community of the Greater Toronto Area to deliver primary health care and traditional healing services.

Care at the three AHT locations (two off Sherbourne St., one on Vaughan Rd.) to one day be amalgamated include: Use of western medicines; pre-and-post natal care; mental health services and child and youth dentistry. Client visits have grown by 8 per cent since 2009, with projected increases of 5 per cent annually — a growth Hester says AHT clinics cannot handle without a larger, state-of-the-art building.

Hester said his group was encouraged by Build Toronto, which handles the sale of surplus city properties, to seriously consider the Power St. property — but were unaware of the heavy historical burial use in that area. It’s a 1/3-hectare parcel south of the Don Valley Parkway’s Richmond St. off-ramp near Parliament St.

AHT was so interested in the site, it hired an architectural firm to draw preliminary sketches of a turtle-shaped, three-storey clinic with a sweat lodge, parking and outdoor landscaping. Douglas Cardinal, a world-renowned architect of Métis and Blackfoot heritage and an Officer of the Order of Canada, was on board to build it as an iconic aboriginal structure the city could enjoy as art.

However, a July 22 phone call from Toronto city councillor Pam McConnell’s office warned AHT executives that the grassy wedge may contain human remains.

The lot is just metres southwest of St. Paul Basilica’s enormous 19th century cemetery where about 3,000 people, possibly more, were interred by the basilica— a third of them Irish typhus victims from 1847, famine immigrants who may have been hastily buried in trenches, not coffins. It was Toronto’s first Catholic cemetery.

McConnell, on vacation, explains in an email that she learned about “the likelihood of remains at this site” from the city’s Heritage Preservation Services when part of that wedge of land was being considered for an off-leash dog park.

“This site sits just south of St. Paul’s church (at 83 Power St.), and early records indicate that the cemetery may have extended south. This is why the whole area is not for the dogs (a small chunk of 51 Power Street to the east is untouched) so as to protect the possible remains. St. Paul’s schoolyard likely has remains as does the land used for the (DVP) overpass,” McConnell writes.

The councillor said she’d request a full archeological review before contemplating any future construction on this site.

In the meantime, dogs romp freely. The fenced area at 51 Power St. is an official city of Toronto off-leash park called Orphans Greenspace where pets can relieve themselves in leafy comfort.

Build Toronto’s senior vice president of development, Don Logie, said there is no evidence human remains exist under the grassy parcel.

The Power St. plot passed initial mandatory archeological testing. When the dog park fence was being built, it also passed a study around the perimeter, monitored by an archaeologist, when fence posts were sunk in 125 centimetres of soil.

No bones were found when post holes were dug out, but one city official said it doesn’t mean the area is free of remains. Old maps indicate St. Paul’s cemetery was never fenced off so the true extent of graveyard boundaries, more than a century later, are unknown.

Ontario is home to the most aboriginal people in Canada, with 242,490 of the 1,172,785 total — about 21 per cent — living in this province, according to figures in the AHT’s recent board of directors report. The report was written by staff physician Dr. Chandrakant Shah, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

The country’s aboriginal population consists of three groups: Status and non-status First Nations people, Metis and Inuit. There’s also a dramatic demographic shift occurring within this population, with greater numbers leaving reserves in search of jobs, schooling and opportunity.

Shah writes that almost 78 per cent of all aboriginal people reside in rural and urban communities, up from about 50 per cent 10 years ago.

A key point: Provision of health care for aboriginal people living in First Nations territories is a federal responsibility. When they move out of their communities, it becomes a provincial matter — an increasing obligation with the rapid in-migration to urban centres.

Yet it’s an obligation Hester says provincial governments don’t understand, since the aboriginal “healing path” addresses the body, mind, spirit and emotion in harmony to restore an individual’s “identity.” Modern, non-native medicine does not take this holistic approach and doesn’t meet the needs of aboriginal patients, Shah said.

Shah writes in his report that aboriginal patients have complained about culturally insensitive health care they receive and at times, experience subtle and overt racism in non-native health care settings.

In the GTA, accommodating a burgeoning aboriginal population base with health care is hitting critical mass.

At Hester’s Queen and Sherbourne location, for instance, not all examination rooms have hand-washing sinks. The building’s computer server, which holds patients’ e-records, is jammed under a set of stairs — Harry Potter style — with no climate controls, protected only by fine wire mesh. The facility, across from Moss Park arena, is spotless. But as a clinic within a converted bank building, rooms are so cramped, specialists sit on examination tables, boxes and floors during consultation meetings.

AHT was identified as a priority for capital funding in a 2006 letter from then-deputy health minister Ron Sapsford. That money has not materialized, says Hester, whose group has been fundraising for years and don’t “come hat-in-hand” to the province.

A spokesperson from provincial health minister Deb Matthews’ office said AHT remains “a priority” for funding. The ministry is currently reviewing AHT’s July 8 proposal for capital assistance.

“The ministry plans to respond as soon as possible, within the month, in recognition of the fact (the fight for funding) has been a long process and that folks are looking for next steps on a really important project that absolutely is a priority,’’ says Matthews’ media aide Paris Meilleur.

Jacques Huot, president of AHT’s board of directors, is unimpressed.

“There’s no list, there’s no priority,’’ said Huot, who met with the ministry’s deputy minister Saad Rafi this week.

“We’ve been on a so-called priority list for six years. . .They keep telling us there’s no money available (and) we could be at this forever. Given the condition of our facilities, we just can’t afford to wait.”

In a July 26 letter to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, Huot wrote that he fears the cramped, outdated clinics will be shut down. He asked McGuinty to expedite the funding process.

“We fear that years of anecdotal information will lead to the conclusion that current conditions are untenable and that Anishnawbe Health Toronto run the risk of being the subject of a complaint, being cited by the (ministry) and closed,” Huot wrote.

“During an exhaustive 10-year search, we have identified several ideal sites but every time our efforts have been thwarted by the lack of a simple funding commitment by (the ministry). We’ve been assured this commitment is forthcoming but (it) never arrives.”

Huot added AHT was not originally slated for delivering health care services and now, it’s operating at levels of “unacceptable risk” in areas of infection prevention and control, patient privacy, patient safety and standards of confidentiality.

“This is very unfortunate,” says Shah, who’s worked at the Queen St. clinic for 15 years. “Good intentions are not good enough anymore. I want to see action. I’m 75 years old and before I go to my grave, I want to see action.”


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