A First Nations leader in northwestern Ontario is questioning a Health Canada decision that will restrict "non-urgent" medical appointments for thousands of people next week.
CBC News obtained a letter from Health Canada to First Nations north of Sioux Lookout that outlines restrictions on travel for patients from March 14 to 18, during the Northern Bands Hockey Tournament in Dryden, Ont.
Dryden is about 350 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
The letter explains that flights from the remote First Nations are often full and hotels near hospitals in Dryden and Sioux Lookout are booked up with hockey players during the annual tournament.
- First Nations man drags oxygen tank 1,000 km on toboggan in health care protest
- Nishnawbe Aski Nation declares health emergency over 'atrocious treatment'
- Auditor general finds major problems in First Nations health care
"Therefore, to prevent leaving clients stranded before or after appointments, we cannot schedule travel or accommodations for non-urgent appointments," the letter says.
Health Canada authorizes and funds medical travel for First Nations people living in remote communities through its Non-Insured Health Benefits Department.
The health director for the Shibogama First Nations Council, which represents five remote communities in northwestern Ontario, said the ban on non-urgent travel reminds him the kind of control exercised under the old pass system, where people needed permission from the Indian agent to leave the reserve.
"They're looking for ways how to deny our people access to care." Sol Mamakwa said. "Does that mean everybody stops getting sick in our communities during hockey tournaments?"
Nursing stations are the only option for care in the fly-in First Nations community in northwestern Ontario, and one-way plane trips to the nearest hospital or specialist can cost up to $1,000. Health Canada pays for the flights if they are deemed medically necessary.
Emergency travel 'would never be affected'
A spokesperson for Health Canada said notification about the limits on travel was sent to First Nations in October so medical appointments would not have to be rescheduled to avoid the hockey tournament.
"Medical emergencies would never be affected by a notification of this kind," Maryse Durette said. "Patients needing emergency travel will always have their needs met."
Mamakwa said the situation with the hockey tournament is just one example of how that system is broken.
"If the Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs, does St. Michael's [Hospital] cancel their surgeries and appointments?" he said. "No, it only happens in northwestern Ontario."