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'Pandemic of suffering:' chiefs put pressure on governments to fund regional hospital

The Canadian Press
'Pandemic of suffering:' chiefs put pressure on governments to fund regional hospital

WINNIPEG, MAN. – Chiefs from four remote First Nations in northeastern Manitoba are calling for the provincial and federal governments to work together to build a hospital in their area.

The chiefs from the Island Lake region said their communities are dealing with a mental health and addictions crisis, and that proper infrastructure in the community would address these issues.

Leaders estimate 15,000 to 18,000 people live in the region, but none of the four communities have a hospital.

Grand Chief Scott Harper, with the area tribal council or Anishininew Okimawin, said it’s the duty of the federal government to provide substantive and equal health care and social services to First Nations comparable to what is provided in non-Indigenous communities across the country.

“An urgent strategy is needed to address colonizational, intergenerational traumatic effects combined with decades of insufficient resources and funding, which has created a pandemic of suffering,” he said Wednesday.

The area is home to Red Sucker Lake, St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack and Garden Hill First Nations. The communities are only accessible by winter road or air, with the exception of Wasagamack, which doesn’t have an airport.

The nations have nursing stations, but the chiefs said they provide limited treatment options and are severely understaffed.

Chief Charles Knott said in his community of Garden Hill, there are four nurses to care for roughly 5,000 people.

People have to be transported to Winnipeg for medical procedures. In some cases, this is done by medevac and puts individuals at risk.

“We have lost community members from moving them too much to try and take them to the airport. it is a struggle,” said Knott.

“I think it’s time the government come visit our community to see firsthand what we go through every day.”

Proposals for construction of a hospital have been submitted to Ottawa in the past, the chiefs said. They did not say why they were rejected.

“We have been negotiating with Canada for decades to fund our hospital and related facilities while our members keep dying from preventable deaths,” said Harper.

Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately respond for a request for comment.

Elvin Flett, chief of St. Theresa Point, said any other community in the country with the population of Island Lake would have a fully operational hospital.

“There are communities that have less population than we do and they have access right in their own community to primary health-care services,” Flett said. “Why are the governments ignoring the cry for help from the four First Nations of Island Lake when we say we need the hospital?”

Leaders are also renewing calls for a regional addictions treatment centre, as well as supports for land-based and mental health programming.

Families from the area walked to Parliament Hill in 2018 to press Canada on the need for a rehab centre for a growing methamphetamine addiction in the communities.

Red Sucker Lake First Nation Chief Sam Knott has seen the toll addictions and mental health issues have had on his members in recent weeks.

The nation called a state of emergency last month after two people died by suicide and more than a dozen others attempted to kill themselves.

The community recently held a funeral for a youth who died by suicide. It shut down the school to allow for teachers and students to mourn.

“We need a substantial amount of support on the ground, especially counselling,” said the Red Sucker chief.

He said he has reached out to provincial and federal ministers to advocate for mental health resources and to push for a conversation around a health facility in the area.

The province did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

©2022 THE CANADIAN PRESS

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