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‘Health is a Treaty Right, but it’s Also a Human Right’

The state of health care for Manitobans living in northern communities is at a breaking point. Years of cutting the provincial health care budget have affected all Manitobans, but people living in isolated communities have felt the brunt of these cuts. When one emergency room is full, or the nurses are fully occupied, there is seldom an alternative option for those needing health care. 

In a conference held earlier in September, Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias told the media, “We are sick and tired of bringing our people home in a box, and that’s what is happening here.”

With the worsening availability of doctors and nurses in northern communities, Chief Monias fears the problem will only continue to get worse. 

“Many unnecessary deaths have happened and will continue to happen because the health system in First Nations is broken.” 

With approximately 8,000 residents living on reserve, Monias says the nursing station in the area is understaffed and underfunded. There are 22 nursing stations across the province, 21 run by Indigenous Services Canada. In these stations, the primary care comes from nurses, and no doctors are on site. The primary concern at the moment is that, with a shortage of nurses, only so much can be done for the community by the few working the stations. Wait times in these communities far exceed the provincial average, which is at a five-year high. Once the nursing stations reach their workload capacity, they have no choice but to close their doors and turn away individuals needing treatment. 

“We feel that if anyone walks into a hospital, they should be seen. You may wait, but you will be seen. We don’t have that opportunity.” 

If it were a matter of waiting for services, that would be manageable, but it is not that simple in Pimicikamak First Nation. Monias has ideas for how the health of his community members can be aided before they become too severe for the nursing station to be able to manage. 

“I think we could prevent a lot more deaths when people can be seen at home and when we can catch these health issues earlier.” 

As for who is at fault, Monias was not shy to call out the perpetrators. 

“We feel that Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) and the province are failing our people because health is a Treaty right, but it’s also a human right.” 

According to Monias, the province-wide shortage of nurses has caused the emergency room of the nursing station to close its doors on several occasions as a result of reaching capacity. When the ER is closed, there are few alternatives left for locals. Some health emergencies can be dealt with over the phone, but in the case of any major emergencies, the individual will be sent over 250 kilometres away to Thompson. Others, typically those experiencing more drastic and complex medical emergencies, will be sent south to Winnipeg, more than 530 kilometres from Pimicikamak. 

“For us, it’s a human right that’s being violated against our people.” 

Chief Monias has said he will request meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, federal Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu and Premier Heather Stefanson to discuss the severity of the issue facing his community. Through these meetings, Monias hopes to ensure that funding from the provincial and federal governments is adequate and consistent enough to maintain the emergency room in his community. 

“We are one of the largest First Nations communities in Canada, and we feel we are being neglected.” 

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs released a statement last week stating that these issues are seen in many other First Nations communities in northern Manitoba. In the statement, the AMC accused the federal and provincial governments of “Perpetuating ongoing injustices and endangering the health and well-being of First Nations Peoples.” 

Slated for next month in Pimicikamak Cree Nation is a new health centre. As is already a problem for the community, Chief David Monias is worried the new health centre will not have enough nurses to staff the new centre adequately. 

As of writing, the current nursing station in the community is intended to have 13 nurses on staff. The reality of the situation is the station has only 4 or 5 nurses working. This shortage is what causes the nursing station to shut its doors, as there is very little help to go around.  

The Pimicikamak First Nation, also known as Cross Lake First Nation, is requesting a renal program for the new health centre. The community sees a higher-than-average number of patients with diabetes who require dialysis. As of now, anyone requiring dialysis treatment will be taken to either Thompson or Winnipeg for the procedure. 

Unfortunately, some residents have gone so far as to give up regular treatment if they are not able to find transportation to their appointments. 

The nursing shortage is felt not only in this community but across the province as a whole. While the recruitment and retention of nurses has become a province and country-wide issue, First Nations communities have been hit the hardest as there are seldom any other options if the local emergency room is closed. If an individual is in dire need of medical attention, their fatality risk increases with the time it will take to access an available emergency room equipped to help them. 

 Investing in Recovery 

As recently as June, the Stefanson government has tried to calm tensions from northern communities that have been experiencing a lack of proper health care support for decades. The June announcement pertained to a $154 million investment to improve health care in northern Manitoba communities. 

Among the goals listed in a news release from June, the PCs hope the investment will enhance “primary care and chronic disease services” while also “building up mental health and addictions treatment options that will allow more patients to access the care they need closer to home.” 

$39 million is to be invested in The Pas Primary Health Care Clinic, nearly 250 kilometres from Picimickamak Cree Nation. This project will include a new clinic offering primary care services and clinical support for preventative and chronic conditions. The facility will also be equipped to handle mental health and addiction services, according to the province. 

With over $115 million left, the province will invest in general health services in northern communities. These improvements will include equipment and expanding facilities across communities. 

With the promise of new facilities and improvements in current facilities, community members will still have to contend with a lack of nurses in the north. 

As for Chief Monias and the people living in Cross Lake First Nation, they say the government needs to step up their support for northern communities experiencing the same problems of health care staffing shortages. 

“There are pillars under the Canada Health Act, and we feel they are being violated.” 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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