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Health Director of nearly 20 years in the community, Donna Metallic has considerable expertise when it comes to health care in Listuguj.  In the past few years, this expertise shifted to elders, and what facilities and services are needed in the community to ensure they are given the best care possible. “How do First Nations experience aging when they have to navigate complex health systems, with medical conditions and complex social and historical conditions?” asked Donna Metallic.

The idea of an elder’s home has been on the radar in Listuguj for a long time – dating back to 2001. Throughout the years, many steps were taken, and work was done to get the green light for the elder’s home in the community. General Manager of Capital and Infrastructure, Bassem Abdrabou acknowledged community members’ hard work over the years: “Several governments, people, and teams have been involved in this project.”  In 2010 the name, “Waqatasg” was coined by a group of elders in the community – Waqatasg meaning, “Northern Light.” Once the land was set aside for the facility, the process began with funding and attaining engineers and construction crews to make this dream become a reality. Most of the funding was from the National Housing Co-Investment Fund – CMHC, the remaining portion of funding was directly from a Listuguj Mi’gmaq Government band contribution. With the help of Chief Darcy Gray, council members, and the Capital and Infrastructure team, the elder’s home project was set into motion in 2017. In 2020, the project design and funding agreement was finalized. Capital and Infrastructure Project Manager, Shereef Aboulazm says when he began working with the community just under two years ago, the design had already been confirmed, and now it was his time to handle executing the project. Despite some project challenges mostly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included project cost and material supply variations, construction began in July 2021.

The vision for Waqatasg is to be “a home within the community” said Metallic. The community of Listuguj holds elders in high regard and wants them to feel comfortable and at home, and that’s where the design concept came from. The facility is the first of its kind to steer away from the typical institutionalized atmosphere that most nursing home facilities embody and focus more on having a home that reflects on Mi’gmaq values that allow elders to stay connected to the community that they’ve been a part of their whole lives. In many cases, elders in the community resisted going to facilities outside of the community, for reasons such as language barriers, and the fact that they are being institutionalized outside of their community in a place where they do not feel culturally safe. Metallic ensures that Waqatasg will maintain the connection between elders and their culture and language. She says that the consulting crew that was selected was familiar with First Nations values, beliefs, and principles, and they are aiming for the staff to have that understanding as well.

While the building’s physical appearance and general atmosphere may seem very comfortable and relaxed, elders who will be in this facility can expect top-of-the-line medical staff and medical equipment that they may not have had access to. Aboulazm states, “For the doctor’s offices and nursing stations, we didn’t have expertise on specific medical equipment and furnishings, so we tendered for a consultant for procurement services. We worked with them for a number of months to get the right equipment ready for the building.”

While Listuguj does offer various services at the Health Centre, this type of long-term 24-hour care was not offered in the community. “We have programs in the community, for example, the home and community care program, but it’s very limited in the types of services we can offer to an individual when their health needs require more than what we can give them,” said Metallic.

Waqatasg Elders Home will be a 24-bed facility, with one bariatric room and one palliative care room.  There will be an area set up for elders who have Alzheimer’s and/or Dementia, and rooms set up to accommodate health conditions an elder may have. There will be a Traditional room, where elders can smudge and continue their spiritual journey, activity rooms, a hair salon, and a gift shop. The facility will be very family-friendly and will allow visits from children.

Not only is this facility needed in the community for elders requiring care, but it will also be a major source of employment opportunities for the area – with a various number of positions such as registered nurses, LPNs, administration staff, legal staff, custodians, kitchen staff, security staff, etc.

The impact that the Waqatasg Elders Home will have on the community will be monumental. “I don’t think people realize how big this will be for the community,” said Metallic. Both Abdrabou and Aboulazm feel very fortunate to have been part of this significant project. Abdrabou has worked on numerous projects throughout his life but says this facility will always have a place in his heart. He said, “It’s not like a shopping mall, or a high rise, or a commercial use building, it’s a building for Elders and First Nations – it’s meaningful.”  Aboulazm said, “We get caught up in the numbers and the construction, but when you actually think about it, this will likely be the last place many family members see their grandparents and parents and to be able to speak to them in their own language, it’s a special kind of thing.”

The work that has gone into the Waqatasg Elders Home was a group effort. From Donna Metallic and her team at the Health Centre, the Capital and Infrastructure team, past and present Chief and Council Members, and the community of Listuguj as a whole.  As of right now, there is no set date for a grand opening, but they are hoping for late Fall to early Winter.

By Ann Marie Jacques

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