Indigenous-focused primary care team looks to establish clinic in Waterloo region

The Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC) wants to open an Indigenous-focused primary care team in Waterloo region.

'We have the office, we have the infrastructure, we have the location — we’re ready to go.'

Laura Beth Maracle, 40, gets her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech at a clinic for Indigenous people, in Toronto, on May 25, 2021. An Indigenous-focused primary care practice could be coming to the Region of Waterloo. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC) wants to establish an Indigenous-focused primary care team in Waterloo region. 

SOAHAC is one of the province's 10 Aboriginal Health Access Centres: health care agencies that offer a mix of traditional healing, health promotion programs and primary care. 

The centre opened a new location in Cambridge, Ont. earlier this year and has applied for provincial funding to hire more than a dozen additional staff — including two doctors and a nurse practitioner — to work out of the space. 

Already, the agency said it's fielding calls from people in the Indigenous community who want to know when primary care is coming. Jan Martin said she hopes to give them an answer soon. 

"Indigenous people have high rates of chronic conditions that are not being addressed, and without a primary care provider, it just perpetuates the problem," said Martin, who is director of Indigenous relations with SOAHAC.

In its funding application, SOAHAC estimates it would serve about 6,267 Indigenous patients in Waterloo region, based on projections from community research out of London. 

Bangishimo, an organizer of Land Back Camp, told CBC K-W "most" Indigenous people they know don't have a family doctor or nurse practitioner and are often wary of who they go see because of racism in the healthcare sector.

"On social media, you always see us constantly asking, like, 'Who's a massage therapist that I can go see, who's a friendly dentist, who's a friendly doctor?'" said Bangishimo, who uses they/them pronouns. 

"Because we're constantly having to wonder if we're going to be racialized in those spaces." 

'Essential need' for Indigenous-led services

The plan has earned the backing of Bruce Lauckner, chief administrative officer for the Region of Waterloo, who previously worked for Ontario Health.

In July, Lauckner wrote to the province in support of SOAHAC's proposal. He said there is an "essential need" for Indigenous-led services in Waterloo region.

"To address inequities in the community and take tangible steps towards reconciliation, we cannot do this alone and are pleased to see SOAHAC come alongside us," wrote Lauckner, who pointed to the centre's role in setting up a culturally-safe space at the Cambridge Pinebush COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

"We were incredibly fortunate to have a successful rollout to local members of Indigenous communities. What was most surprising was that Indigenous people also came from all over the province to the region because of the creation of culturally-appropriate vaccination clinics and the safe spaces within," wrote Lauckner.

Dave Remy is director of client care with the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

Dave Remy, director of client care at SOAHAC, believes the level of uptake at the vaccine clinic points to the need for more Indigenous-focused care in the region.

Ensuring that more people have access to a family doctor or nurse practitioner would also take pressure off other parts of the healthcare system, he said.

"If you want to relieve the congestion in your hospitals, if you want to ensure that that people are healthy, then you need to invest in primary care," he said. 

In response to questions from CBC K-W, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said they couldn't comment on when the ministry might reach a decision on SOAHAC's application.

"Unsolicited proposals are reviewed on an ongoing basis, and subject to available funding, may be recommended for approval," the statement said.

Remy hopes to get the official green light soon.

"We have the office, we have the infrastructure, we have the location — we're ready to go," he said.