BIRCH ISLAND – Anticipation of the new Whitefish River First Nation (WRFN) elders’ residence has been strong since long before its completion this past summer, but like many things, the pandemic has set things on their heads and the complex remains in its COVID-19 pandemic isolation centre configuration.
WRFN decided to hold an open house for band members to view the facility, by appointment only, on December 1, from at 10 am to 2 pm. This new residence is located at 31 Water Tower Road, Birch Island.
“This is not our official grand opening,” said WRFN housing manager Georgina Recollet, “but this was for individuals that have requested to check out the building. Our official grand opening will be scheduled at a later date.”
The project began in August 2019, with a completion date of April 2020, but the desire and planning for the elders’ residence has been in the works for decades.
“It is something our elders have indicated they wanted for some time,” said Chief Shining Turtle (Franklin Paibomsai). “The really big challenge was finding a location that suited.”
Chief Shining Turtle credited the perseverance and determination of Ms. Recollet. “This is really due to her hard work in seeing this through,” he said.
“We did everything in a respectful way,” said Chief Shining Turtle, who noted that the building site was smudged by a community elder before construction began.
Currently, the elders’ residence is set up as a COVID-19 station as WRFN is still in a state of emergency,” said Ms. Recollet. “Tenants will be able to move in once it is safe.”
The chief and council approved the project which was funded by WRFN, Indigenous Services Canada and Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation’s Section 95 program, explained Ms. Recollet.
In a marked departure from other First Nations’ take on the federal government’s top bureaucrat in the region (Ontario regional director general Anne Scotton) as other communities have called on her firing or resignation, Chief Shining Turtle had nothing but praise for the regional director, noting that their interactions were not only cordial and respectful, but that Ms. Scotton had gone above and beyond in supporting the project, even finding additional funding.
The project team consisted of Chief Paibomsai (Shining Turtle) and Councillors Brian McGregor, Cara McGregor, Francis McGregor, Todd McGregor, Leona Nahwegahbow, Esther Osche and David Shawanda.
Band manager Art Jacko served as the project team leader; the architect was Perry and Perry Architects Ltd.; project managers were FNR Inc.; engineers were Nicholls Engineering and the contractor was Lignum Builders Ltd.
Ms. Recollet explained that the elders’ residence is a multi-unit building for WRFN band members over the age 60 and that will allow them to live independently. The building features six one-bedroom apartments and two two-bedroom apartments.
The apartments are all inclusive with hydro, individually controlled heat and central air, satellite television and internet provided. Each apartment is also equipped with kitchen facilities.
A major feature of the building is the common area which also includes a kitchen and dining area. The common area kitchen is fully equipped with microwave, stove, refrigerator, cookware, coffeemaker, bakeware, dishware, cutlery and more. The dining area has seating for eight. There are also three wingback chairs and a large smart TV in the common area. The common area is available for bookings by tenants of the building for various functions and gatherings. A resource room with two computers and internet access is also available for tenants of the building.
The building and premises also feature: two offices for staff, two laundry rooms, two accessible washrooms and a gazebo with seating to access the outdoors.
What isn’t readily visible are the features that will help keep residents cosy and comfortable.
“The contractors were very helpful in coming up with suggestions,” said Chief Shining Turtle. Those included applying a spray insulation to the windward side of the building to provide better sealing and the staggering of wall construction in the hallways to isolate any noise from the individual units.
The location of the elders’ residence was a balance between being in a natural environment yet central location, not “out in the bush.”
“We tried to find a location that would be on the water, but that would have made it remote to the community,” said Chief Shining Turtle.
Plans for an official opening are on hold until the pandemic has passed.
“There were a lot of band members in the community who wanted to know what was happening with this project,” said Chief Shining Turtle. “The open house by appointment was the best concept for letting people come and see what it is all about while maintaining safety.”