The Toronto aboriginal health-care group that forfeited a prized downtown site for a new clinic over concerns the land may be a Roman Catholic graveyard is now one step closer to building its dream facility.
Anishnawbe Health Toronto received approval Tuesday for a $1,485,000 provincial planning and design grant to consolidate its three GTA clinics into a single, iconic aboriginal structure.
The funds came from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
“We look forward to creating a legacy for our people,’’ said AHT’s executive director, Joe Hester, who’s desperate to replace two cramped clinics off Sherbourne St. and another on Vaughan Rd. with a facility where traditional healing and modern medicine will be practised in tandem.
“For us, it will have to be a home, and home has to be a place of beauty. Home has to be inviting. It’s a place for rest, respite, and it represents you as a person.”
Once a new downtown site has been selected — negotiations for locations are underway — and design bids have been tendered, it’s expected construction capital will be quickly forthcoming from the province.
The project will get input from aboriginal elders before a final design bid is chosen.
Hester said the grant announcement, made at AHT’s clinic across from the Moss Park Arena, was one of the few bright moments in a decade-long quest to better serve the 85,000 aboriginal men, women and children living in the GTA. It’s a group whose overall health is two to three times lower than that of the general Canadian population.
“It’s been like a long battle and now, we’re starting to realize victory,” said Hester.
“It’s really important for us as a people to be able to move forward with our agendas in terms of our needs.”
One of those needs is beauty. So the clinic won’t be another grey bunker amid the downtown condos. Think more Douglas Cardinal: flowing, welcoming, hugging nature.
“It’s not just (going to be) a health-care centre, it’s a place of refuge for our people,” said Jacques Huot, president of AHT’s board of directors, noting that spiritual wellness is a component of caring for physical ailments in native culture.
“Toronto can be an incredibly intimidating place for someone who has just left the reserve, who has left the beauty of Mother Nature and comes into this concrete jungle. So architectural beauty, if you want to call it that, is an important part of the healing process. (A building) is not just a functional thing, it’s an emotional thing as well.”
Cardinal had been approached previously by AHT about creating a one-of-a-kind aboriginal structure the city could enjoy as art.
The internationally renowned architect and Officer of the Order of Canada, who is of Métis and Blackfoot heritage, said working with “grassroots” people like AHT enables him to meld beauty and community service — a pairing he believes is too rare in society.
“Why shouldn’t these programs — and most programs that serve the public — be beautiful?” Cardinal said in a recent interview.
“This is an opportunity to create something that follows the values of the First Nations — creating beauty and harmony, which is an intrinsic part of their culture . . . There’s so much ugliness which adds to our social problems in our built environment, so if the First Nations want to do something about providing beauty and share that with the rest of the community, I think that’s a wonderful vision.”
In July, AHT was considering building at 51 Power St.. The group hired an architectural firm to draw preliminary sketches of a turtle-shaped, three-storey clinic with a sweat lodge.
But a phone call from Toronto Councillor Pam McConnell’s office warned AHT executives that the grassy wedge, located south of the Don Valley Parkway’s Richmond St. off ramp, near Parliament St., might contain human remains.
The lot is just metres southwest of St. Paul’s enormous 19th century cemetery, where about 3,000 people — possibly more — were interred, a third of them Irish typhus victims in 1847. One city official said old maps indicate the cemetery by the basilica was never fenced off, so the true graveyard boundaries are unknown.
Today, the area is an official City of Toronto off-leash dog park called Orphans Greenspace, where pets can relieve themselves.
The decision to leave human bones — and, more important, the souls of the dead — undisturbed is in keeping with native beliefs.
“That door closed on us and represented a bit of a fallback, but we had the determination to continue,” Hester said of walking away from the Power St. plot.
“But at the same time, it wasn’t a hard decision for us. It was the right decision, so we felt good about that. It was a mixed blessing.”
AHT is an accredited community health centre funded through the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network, and is mandated by the Aboriginal Community of the Greater Toronto Area to deliver primary health care and traditional healing services.
Ontario has the most aboriginal people of all the provinces, with 242,490 (about 21 per cent) of the 1,172,785 Canadian total, according to figures in AHT’s recent board of directors report. The aboriginal population consists of three groups: status and non-status First Nations people, Métis and Inuit.
There’s a dramatic urban migration taking place within this population, with greater numbers leaving reserves in search of jobs, schooling and opportunity. About 78 per cent of all aboriginal people reside in rural and urban communities, up from about 50 per cent 10 years ago, according to AHT’s staff physician, Dr. Chandrakant Shah, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Glen Murray, MPP for Toronto Centre, made the announcement Tuesday at the AHT clinic. The health group is also working with Build Toronto and Infrastructure Ontario to assess potential locations.