Ottawa promises $100M to build new hospital for Norway House Cree Nation

The federal government has promised to spend $100 million on a new hospital in a remote Manitoba First Nation dogged by switched-at-birth mix-ups and accusations of inadequate health care.

Federal government wants to eventually turn over the hospital to the community

Dignitaries were on hand at the ceremonial sod-turning for the new $100-million hospital to be constructed at Norway House Cree Nation. Construction is expected to start this fall. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

The federal government has promised to spend $100 million on a new hospital in a remote Manitoba First Nation dogged by switched-at-birth mix-ups and accusations of inadequate health care. 

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott visited Norway House Cree Nation on Friday to commit to building the new hospital. The funding will be set aside over the next five years. 

The Norway House Cree Nation Centre of Excellence will replace the existing Norway House Indian Hospital. It will combine traditional Indigenous knowledge with western medicine to deliver holistic care to roughly 8,000 people in the community, as well as surrounding areas, officials said.

The federal government intends to eventually turn over the reins of the hospital to the community, officials said Friday. The facility would become the largest health-care centre in Manitoba history under First Nations control. 

Norway House Chief Larson Anderson called it a historic day, in front of hundreds who turned out for a community celebration under a tent on Friday.

"You get the sense for what this all means for our community to take on a project of this magnitude, but also a facility coming to our community for us to use for the future," he said.

He said the new state-of-the-art facility will not only address the community's health-care needs, but create local opportunities in education, training and employment.

"The people in the North has as much right to quality health care as the people in the south — and we're seeing that today," Philpott said.

Norway House resident Leon Swanson weeps at a press conference in Winnipeg in 2016, where it was revealed that he was one of four men switched at birth in 1975 when their mothers gave birth at Norway House Indian Hospital. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

The state of Norway House's health-care system has been scrutinized since the shocking discovery in 2015 that two Indigenous men born at the hospital were switched at birth more than 40 years ago and each was raised by the biological mother of the other.

The next summer, DNA tests revealed a similar mix-up involving two other men born at the hospital in the same year.

Two of the four men recently reached a financial settlement with the federal government. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed. 

Eric Robinson, a former Manitoba cabinet minister who acted as a liaison for the men, told The Canadian Press last month that the federally run hospital has historically mistreated Indigenous people.

"Indian people, as we were known then … received second-rate treatment," Robinson said.

Improving health outcomes

Dr. Courtney Campbell Leary, a Norway House member and lecturer at the University of Manitoba's department of family medicine, envisions better health care for her community in the future.

The development of a comprehensive health centre is the culmination of 30 years of work, she said.

"This is a health centre that will be built by Indigenous people, run by Indigenous people, in our territory and using our traditional language to serve our community and teach future health-care providers. When we speak of improving health outcomes of Indigenous Peoples of Canada, Norway House will be at the forefront of that change."

Hundreds of community members turned out for an event announcing the new $100-million hospital to be constructed at Norway House Cree Nation. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

The new facility will have a 12-bed inpatient unit, an emergency department, diagnostic imaging, a birthing unit, a dialysis unit and a surgical suite. 

There also will be a sweat lodge, Indigenous language programming and staff education, and a spiritual-based care philosophy.

The hospital will be guided by Jordan's Principle, a Parliament-endorsed principle that dictates all Indigenous children should have access to health care equitable to the care given to other Canadian children, regardless of where they live.

Jordan Anderson's siblings attended the ceremony announcing the construction of a new hospital at Norway House Cree Nation. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

The principle is named for Jordan River Anderson, a Norway House boy who spent his entire life in a Winnipeg hospital while federal and provincial governments bickered over who should pay the bill for specialized home-based care for him. He died from a rare neuromuscular disorder in 2005, when he was five.

The new hospital will have a community and rehabilitation program driven by Jordan's Principle.

Construction is expected to begin this fall.

Norway House will offer post-secondary training for hospital staff in collaboration with the University of Manitoba. 

Norway House Cree Nation is 455 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

With files from The Canadian Press