Pressure mounts for governments to address crisis on Ontario reserves

Physicians call for additional funding in remote First Nations communities as organizations declare public health emergencies

The Northern Ontario reserve of Kaschechewan is seen in this undated handout aerial photo. (CP)

The Northern Ontario reserve of Kashechewan is seen in this undated handout aerial photo. (CP)

OTTAWA – Doctors dispatched to a northern Ontario reserve to treat children with skin conditions say remote communities are dealing with an ongoing medical crisis, the result of a shortage of medical services.

Three physicians from the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority have written an open letter calling for more resources to deal with persistent problems at the Kashechewan First Nation and elsewhere.

The letter, released by northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, urges Canadians not to tolerate the level of health care access available in the area.

“This ongoing medical crisis is related to access to medical services,” the letter said. “Canadians would not, and should not accept the access to health care that those in these remote communities live with on a daily basis.”

Access to nurses and support services in communities is inadequate, it continues, and physician availability is also limited.”Any care beyond primary care is provided away from the home community.”

The report echoes conclusions presented last spring by the federal auditor general, who found quality health care in remote First Nations communities is sorely lacking.

“Unfortunately, it is not something that is news to us,” said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.

“It is something that has been an issue for many of our communities for a long time now.”

NAN, a political organization representing northern Ontario communities, declared a public health emergency last month.

Sub-standard health care and the lack of access to mental health services is so common it is raised by First Nations leaders and frontline workers on a daily basis, Fiddler noted.

“It is a never-ending battle to try to address all the issues we are seeing in the communities,” he said.

That desperation was expressed by Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon of the Mushkegowuk Council when NAN publicly announced its emergency declaration in February.

“We are in a state of shock,” Solomon said at the time, wiping away tears. “When is enough? It is sad. Waiting is not an option any more.”

Angus said he is also troubled by what he sees as a full-blown health crisis.

“It seems to have to be so high to get anybody’s attention in Canada when the ongoing effect for the people in the community … is deteriorating health, sickness and sometimes death,” he said.

The issues playing out on reserves are not surprising, Angus added.

“They are the inevitable result of continual underfunding, treating their communities as though they are … displacement camps,” he said. “People are going to get sick. Things are going to fall apart.”

In a statement released last week, Philpott called the situation in Kashechewan another troubling reminder of the social and health challenges faced by many First Nation and Inuit communities.

“We have seen states of emergency declared in Northern Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba,” she said. “We have read painful stories of suicide, addiction and disease.”

It is unacceptable such conditions exist in a nation as rich as Canada, she added.

“I have spoken to First Nations Leaders who are deeply concerned for their people, but just as deeply committed to finding real, lasting solutions,” Philpott said.

“I have assured them of our government’s firm resolve to work with them in partnership, to find those solutions. But this will not happen overnight.”

— with files from Colin Perkel

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