Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (Big Trout Lake) in northwestern Ontario has declared a state of emergency over a shortage of nurses in the community, and its chief says the federal government needs to do more to ensure that doesn't happen.

In a media release issued Thursday evening, Chief James Cutfeet said council was informed that there were three nurses at the community's nursing station. Of those, two were working, as the third needed to sleep after looking after an in-patient overnight.

"You may miss a call to an urgent event and that's where crisis issues occur," Cutfeet told CBC News on Friday of the risks when nurses are forced to constantly prioritize patients. "They're in crisis mode in managing the operation of the nursing station."

The facility, the release stated, is supposed to have a full complement of six nurses at all times due to the size of the clinic and the population of the community. But, Cutfeet said the medical centre usually operates with four or five.

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug is a fly-in community, located about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, with a population of about 1,000.

Nursing station closed

As a result of the shortage, the community closed the medical facility, except in cases of, what community officials called "dire emergencies."

"We will not put our community at risk by continuing to expect the same level of nursing operation," the release stated. "We do not wish to put additional burden on the nurses who are already overworked, overtired and under extreme stress."

The community is calling on the federal government to bring more nurses into the community immediately and to develop a long-term strategy to prevent similar occurrences. Cutfeet said other remote communities find themselves in similar situations.

"We're not the only ones who are feeling the pinch of always being understaffed [at] nursing stations," he said.

"I think there needs to be a broader discussion and strategy by the government as to how to try and maintain, or at least a semblance of maintaining, complementary levels of the nursing stations that are in the north."

Nurses arriving, Health Canada says

Additional nurses were brought into Kitchenuhmaykoosib on Friday, Health Canada said in an emailed statement to CBC News, bringing the total to five, with two more arriving early next week.

As for long-term strategies, a spokesperson acknowledged that "nurse recruitment continues to be an issue, particularly in remote and isolated First Nations communities," but said the agency is exploring options, including calling up nurses or redistributing them between communities in order to boost the complement where needed.

Health Canada added that, as part of an agency strategy, it is focusing on recruitment and retention of nurses and that it has pledged to increase resources "for recruitment and retention activities in Ontario."