Manitoba NDP leader wants Churchill to be hub for northern health care

NDP leader Wab Kinew is joining a chorus of voices calling on governments to invest in Churchill's hospital, developing it into a regional centre for Northerners.

Churchill Health Centre 'under-utilized,' says Mayor Mike Spence

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew (centre, at back) stands with health-care staff for a photo in Churchill, Man. (Submitted/Manitoba NDP)

NDP leader Wab Kinew is joining a chorus of voices calling on governments to invest in Churchill's hospital, developing it into a regional centre for Northerners.

The opposition leader recently returned from a trip to the northern town, where he hosted a forum with residents on health care and met with staff at the Churchill Health Centre.

"We already have the state-of-the-art facility, we already have excellent staff who are there caring for patients and we have communities nearby who are in need," he said. 

The Churchill Health Centre has an emergency room, an operating room and specialists who rotate through the town. It offers dental services to residents and people from Nunavut and has an abundance of long-term-care beds, according to the mayor.

The town about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg also has an airport, though its rail line has been down for months.

But according to Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, the hospital is modern, big and ready for service.

"It's a facility that's under-utilized and we need to maximize its potential and it's an idea that's been talked about many times," said Mike Spence..

Spence said the hospital used to have a birthing centre and was originally built to service the needs of people in the region, including people from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. He said the OR is under-utilized, currently only being scheduled for dental surgeries. 

He wants to meet with other leaders to determine how to best expand the hospital's services. 
Many are calling on the province, federal government to support the development of Churchill's Health Centre into a regional hub for the North. (Facebook)

"It's critically important that we put together a task force, a working group that would include the province, I feel the federal government needs to be involved, and we had a visit by MKO Grand Chief Sheila North, and she was quite impressed with the facility that we have here. So it's a matter of bringing key people together and let's put forward some recommendations," he said.

Kinew said the hospital has a unique ability to provide culturally sensitive care, in that it has Indigenous staff and is situated on Hudson Bay, close to the land which is healing for Indigenous people. There's plenty of space for people who come for non-emergent procedures and care, he said. 

"They've also structured their health centre to be very welcoming in that respect. And to host people who are there to support their loved ones in their recovery process," he said. 

He'd like to see universities and college develop nursing programs stationed in Churchill, so people can train and work closer to home.

"There's a real opportunity there."

An organization that represents more than 30 First Nations in Manitoba has also been calling on the province and federal government to "come to the table" to talk about Churchill as a northern regional health-care centre.

"The people of the Keewatinowi region know what solutions will best suit their families and region. Many people in the north feel that it is time to bring modern health services closer to home," said Sheila North, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.
MKO Grand Chief Sheila North says 'people in the north feel that it is time to bring modern health services closer to home.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"The MKO would like to see better use of the health infrastructure currently in the north, like the Churchill Hospital, and the building of new buildings, services and programs to deliver health services within the Keewatinowi region. This will need sensible and effective coordination by the governments as well as realistic and long-term funding," she said. 

The federal government recently made committed millions to economic development and the local economy in Churchill. Spence said some of these funds could definitely go toward expansion of services at the Health Centre.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen acknowledged the Churchill Health Centre as "an important part of the network of healthcare facilities available to Manitobans." 

"Manitoba's north currently has three regional hubs offering a range of services in Thompson, The Pas and Flin Flon. Higher acuity patients are often transferred to an urban, more specialized centre in order to receive the treatment they need," wrote the spokesperson.

"Although there are no plans to increase the services at the Churchill Health Centre, any opportunity to more effectively provide patients the right care, at the right time, in the right place, will always be given serious consideration."

Churchill mayor Mike Spence says sending patients to Winnipeg doesn't always need to be the answer. (Sean Kavanagh CBC)
Spence said he had a meeting last week with three provincial ministers and they seemed amenable to the idea of maximizing the hospital's potential. He said many people in the north just need access to medical services in general. 

"Sending patients to Winnipeg is not totally the answer. The hospitals are at capacity in southern Manitoba," he said.

"We know that there's great potential, but in all fairness, let's put together a working group."