'Big day' for Pimicikamak as federal government gives $40M for new hospital

A northern Manitoba First Nation that declared a state of emergency due to a suicide crisis earlier this year is building a new hospital with $40 million from the federal government.
Jillian Taylor reports on a northern cree community that is set to get a brand new hospital. 1:55

A northern Manitoba First Nation that declared a state of emergency due to a suicide crisis earlier this year is building a new hospital with $40 million from the federal government.

"Today is a big day for our nation. We've lost too many people due to the lack of health services in our nation," said Shirley Robinson, vice-chief of Pimicikamak.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Pimicikamak Chief Cathy Merrick made the announcement Tuesday in the community, also known as Cross Lake, located more than 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Representatives from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and the Manitoba government were also there, along with Niki Ashton, the NDP MP for the area, and Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), which represents northern Manitoba's First Nations.

A federal government spokesperson called it the largest-ever federal investment in an on-reserve health facility in Manitoba.

"We are very fortunate that this vision our leaders have had — to look at the health and wellness of our people — it's become a reality," said Robinson, noting the community has been requesting a hospital for 12 years.

Birth centre, renal unit to be included

Helga Hamilton, director of health programs with Cross Lake Health Services, said the hospital will include a birth centre and a renal dialysis unit.

"It's exciting news, it's wonderful news, knowing that now a majority of our patients will be able to remain home," she said.

Hamilton said the birth centre and renal unit will allow patients needing those services to stay close to home, rather than having to fly to hospitals in other communities to receive care.

Expectant mothers currently have to leave their community for two weeks before giving birth, with no family members allowed to join them, while renal patients have to leave home for several months at a time to receive treatment, Hamilton said.

With the new hospital, she said, doctors and medical staff will be flying to Pimicikamak instead of patients having to leave the community.

"So now they get to stay in the comfort of their own home — go to their appointment, come home," she said.

Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton, left, Pimicikamak Coun. Donnie McKay, Chief Cathy Merrick, vice-chief Shirley Robinson and MLA Amanda Lathlin wait for federal Health Minister Jane Philpott to arrive in the community on Tuesday morning. (Courtesy Helga Hamilton)

New facilities, upgrades in other communities

The government is also putting $10 million towards other projects on Manitoba First Nations, making for a total investment over the next two years of $50 million.

Philpott said the money is coming from the Liberal government's Social Infrastructure Fund.

In addition to Pimicikamak's hospital, new health centres will be built in God's Lake Narrows First Nation, Lac Brochet First Nation and Red Sucker Lake First Nation.

The funding will also help with upgrades to the Sagkeeng First Nation's National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program treatment facility and the Percy E. Moore Hospital in Manitoba's Interlake region.

As well, money from the Social Infrastructure Fund will cover design costs to replace the water treatment plant, sewage facility and utility infrastructure in Norway House, Man.

State of emergency

Six people in Pimicikamak took their own lives from December 2015 to March 2016, prompting Robinson to declare the state of emergency. She also asked Health Canada to send a crisis team.

The registered population of Pimicikamak is 8,365, with 5,858 registered as living on the reserve, according to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Manitoba doctors concerned Northern communities will have decreased service if province moves forward with privatization of air ambulance service. (CBC)
The present nursing station on the reserve is too small "to meet the standards of care our people so deserved," Robinson said. "Our people would often be airlifted [to another location] just to get that medical help they required.

"It [is] a clinical nursing station and many times the waiting room was packed. When we had emergencies, our people would be airlifted to Thompson, which is the nearest hospital, or to Winnipeg, depending on the severity of each case.

"And we had a crisis that started back in December where we lost young lives to suicide and that right there is where the standards of care was not met for our people — the mental health aspect of our nation was not fully met at the time," Robinson added.

"I know by having this hospital it will provide the services our people do need, do require, and we anticipate to have a mental health section in the hospital where we can provide constant care because losing lives to suicide, it's unacceptable."

The plan is to have the design phase completed by December 2016 and shovels in the ground by fall 2017.

Also on Tuesday, Philpott announced that Health Canada will fund the creation of six community-based mental wellness teams within the next three years to support First Nations communities in Manitoba, along with a mental health crisis response team dedicated to First Nations.

With files from Jillian Taylor