Some federal agencies are cautious about talking to the media — so much so that they make journalists jump through hoops to get answers to even simple questions.

I experienced this firsthand while working on a project about access to health services on northern reserves, and the experiences of First Nations people who have to leave their communities to get even simple health services.

First Nations treaties with the federal government state that Ottawa must provide them with health care.

While many health services are made available to First Nations people under provincial programs, any services that go beyond that are covered by the federally run Non-Insured Health Benefits Program.

First Nations people on remote reserve communities, where health services are scarce, rely heavily on the federal program. Often people must leave their communities to receive even simple health services, since nursing stations typically have limited equipment and medication on hand — not to mention a lack of trained professionals.

Free to speak with nurses

To learn more about what people go through to access health services, I went to Sachigo Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario. I had previously lived in the small community of 500 people, and knew many people who lived there, making it a lot easier for me to gather stories.

At the suggestion of a senior producer at CBC, before I flew to the community, I called Health Canada and asked to speak to the nurses at the Isaac Barkman Nursing Station in Sachigo Lake.

Isaac Barkman Nursing Station

The Isaac Barkman Nursing Station serves the small community of Sachigo Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

I was assured by Health Canada media relations advisor Maryse Durette that I was free to talk to the community nurses, assuming they were willing to speak.

When I arrived in the community in early September, I went to the nursing station as soon as possible to speak to the nurses, confident that I could secure a few interviews. When I arrived, however, the head nurse told me that she knew I was coming and said her employer prohibited her from speaking to me.

The nurse handed me a slip of paper, and on it was contact information for media relations advisors for Health Canada, who are not located in the community.

A few days later, I received an email from Durette. She explained that she was unable to find nurses willing to speak to me and stressed that the nursing station was "off limits."

Getting the runaround

With the nursing staff off limits, I spent my time in the community talking to as many residents as I could about the troubles they face when flying out of Sachigo Lake for health care.

Near the end of my trip, I was told by the community's health director — who is employed by the band, and not Health Canada — that there was a senior representative from Health Canada visiting the community who wanted to speak to me.

When I returned to the nursing station, I was immediately told by the senior representative that he could not speak to me.

I was getting the runaround.

The senior official told me that Health Canada restricts their interaction with the media because reporters focus too much attention on negative stories and don't cover the many positive things nurses and physicians are doing in the North.

Highly controlled interview

Upon returning home from Sachigo Lake, I asked Durette if I could interview someone from Health Canada who understands the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program.

She agreed to book an interview, but I had to wait more than two weeks for it to happen.  

Durette arranged for me to speak to three individuals who work for Health Canada, none of whom work in the community. The experts provided were all senior management, and many of the answers they provided were almost verbatim from the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program medical transportation policy.

The interview itself was also highly controlled — I was given 25 minutes and had to send questions to Durette ahead of time, though Durette did assure me it was all right to go slightly off script.

Health Canada denies they make employees sign a non-disclosure agreement, but during my trip to Sachigo Lake I spoke to two Health Canada employees who told me they were instructed not to speak to me.

Whether or not they signed a non-disclosure agreement, Health Canada employees are clearly scared to speak to media. To ensure full transparency, perhaps the agency should encourage more open dialogue with media, so we can cover all the stories, including the positive ones.

 

This story is part of a series on access to health services in Sachigo Lake First Nation that was funded by the Canadian Journalism Foundation. Stephanie Cram is the recipient of the 2016 CJF Aboriginal Journalism Fellowship.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said nurses were muzzled and suggested they sign non-disclosure agreements with their employer; however, Health Canada says they do not. The story has been changed to reflect Health Canada's statement.
    Feb 16, 2017 1:04 PM ET