Federal health officials are in Sioux Lookout, Ont., working with First Nations leaders who say their communities are facing a health emergency, Health Minister Jane Philpott says.

During a media scrum on Parliament Hill Wednesday, Philpott said representatives from both Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada are currently in Sioux Lookout.

"Our government acknowledges that there are tremendous and unfortunate gaps in health outcomes that indigenous peoples in Canada are facing," Philpott said. "We're very concerned about that."

Norman Shawaybick

Norman Shawaybick, centre, tows an oxygen tank on a tobaggan along the winter road to Webequie First Nation. That's where his wife Laura died after the oxygen supply was depleted at the local nursing station. (Blue Earth Photography)

People living in remote First Nations in northern Ontario are dying "needlessly" because they don't have access to basic health care, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said Wednesday in declaring the emergency .

Fiddler gave the example of Laura Shawaybick from Webequie First Nation who died after the nursing station in her community ran out of the oxygen. 

"It has come to that for many of our communities, just basic, basic things like bottles of oxygen, for our nursing stations to have adequate supply of oxygen at all times," Fiddler said.

Question Period 20160222

Minister of Health Jane Philpott responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In addition to the health care concerns, there is also a public health emergency, Fiddler said, including a lack of clean drinking water that contributes to the spread of infectious diseases.

Philpott did not respond to the First Nations request for an urgent meeting with her within 90 days.

Other demands from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation include:

  • Detailed plans and timelines indicating how First Nations communities will be provided with safe, clean and reliable drinking water.
  • Provincial and federal government resources to develop long-term strategies for crisis situations including suicide prevention, mental health services, counselling, addiction treatment and after-care.
  • Health Canada to provide detailed plans and timelines on how they will follow all the recommendations in the Spring 2015 Auditor General Report including:

a. Addressing deficiencies in the Health Canada nursing stations infrastructure.

b. Ensuring all necessary supplies and equipment are available.

c. Ensuring that Health Canada nursing stations are capable of providing Health Canada's essential health services.

d. Ensuring that allocation of [health care] resources is based on community needs.

A spokesperson for Health Canada said the agency is "assessing and prioritizing" work on nursing stations, creating a new scheduling system that would reduce paper work and developing on a pilot project that could see a "virtual emergency room" used for critically ill patients in remote First Nations.