North·Video

Quebec Cree deal with travel, isolation just to see a medical specialist

Each year, thousands of Quebec Cree patients travel south to see medical specialists unavailable in the North. Montreal's Espresso Hotel is one of the places patients stay.

A lack of services in the north can mean years away from family, community

Ida Sharl and her partner Marcel Ruperthouse, from the Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou, have lived at the Hotel Espresso in Montreal for almost 6 months. It's where Quebec Cree live when they are sent to the city for medical treatment. (Craig Desson/CBC)

A simple trip to see the doctor can often be anything but simple for Cree patients in Quebec — it can involve days of travel and many weeks, months or even years away from a home community and family.

In 2018, there were more than 21,000 Cree patient visits to the South. They went to places like Val d'Or, Chibougamau and Montreal to see medical specialists. 

Audrey Matches comes from the James Bay community of Wemindji and has been in Montreal getting dialysis for seven years.

She lives at Hotel Espresso, a seven-story hotel at the corner of Guy Street and René-Lévesque Boulevard in the heart of downtown.

Espresso has been specially outfitted to accommodate long-term stays like hers.

In a communal space, Matches recently prepared a birthday meal for her son, Ibrahima. 

Audrey Matches from Wemindji, Que., prepares a birthday meal for her son in the community kitchen at the Espresso Hotel. She has lived away from home for 7 years. (Stephane Gunner/CBC)

The four-year-old blew out the candle on his cake to the applause of people gathered in kitchen.

"It feels really different when I do birthdays here for my child. As the rest of my family can't be here," said Matches.

Her other children are in Wemindji, about 1,300 kilometres northwest of Montreal, and she's sad she can't be with them. She said they will be having a feast of their own.

Activities and emotional support

The communal kitchen was built in 2016 so Crees could gather. At the same time, an activity room and a spiritual room were made.

The hotel's renovations were organized by the Wiichiihituuwin department of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay.

The board's Cree patient services department flies people south, feeds them, coordinates appointments and makes sure they're comfortable.

A community kitchen built at the Hotel Espresso in 2016 by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services allows people to gather, cook and celebrate birthdays together. (Stephane Gunner/CBC)

When they're in Montreal, a community worker organizes special activities and also helps people access transportation so they can shop and cook for themselves.  

"[Some of the patients] will be living in a small room, far away from their families," said Helen Shecapio-Blacksmith, director of Wiichiihituuwin department. 

"They get tired sometimes and they just want to let go."

Wiichiihituuwin has up to 125 rooms per night reserved for its clients at Hotel Espresso, up to 35 of those rooms are filled with people staying long term.

Helen Shecapio-Blacksmith is the director of Wiichiihituuwin department of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. (Stephane Gunner/CBC)

Many of the Cree patients sent south for treatment have the right to have an escort with them, usually a family member.

Shecapio-Blacksmith says the escort's most important role is as emotional support, and in the case of elders who speak neither English nor French, as someone who can act as an interpreter.

In 2018, there were 5,688 Cree patient visits to see specialists in Montreal. They stay at Hotel Espresso on Guy Street. (Stephane Gunner/CBC)

Shecapio-Blacksmith said having communal spaces to meet and cook traditional food, such as moose and goose, is a key part of coping with health challenges and isolation.

"When they go in these spaces, they're together and they forget that they're in Montreal," said Shecapio-Blacksmith, adding that many of the clients are residential school survivors and being cooped up in hotel room brings them back to those traumas.

For some people staying at the hotel, efforts to make them comfortable as they receive medical treatment don't go far enough.

"[They said]: 'We want to support your family.' But I haven't seen any of these supports," said Ida Sharl, who has lived at the hotel for six months. 

She and her partner Marcel Ruperthouse are there because of their baby's health.

They come from Oujé-Bougoumou, located more than 1,000 kilometres south of Chisasibi.

"Some days we stay in the room all day," said Sharl.

She doesn't feel there are enough activities for patients who are staying in the hotel long-term. 

In 2016, renovations to the Espresso hotel add an activity room, a spiritual room and a community kitchen. (Stephane Gunner/CBC)

Shecapio-Blacksmith said her department is also trying to address complaints about noise in the hotel, particularly during the summer months and when there are big concerts happening in Montreal. 

"We do have some partying. It's true," said Shecapio-Blacksmith, adding it's a balance between respecting the rights of clients to have a drink and those who are looking for peace and quiet.

She says her team tries to make adjustments such as placing elders and babies at the end of corridors where it will be quieter. 

A lack of medical specialists in remote communities can mean years away from family for some Quebec Cree. 8:07

About the Author

Stephane Gunner is with CBC's Cree unit based in Montreal.

With files from Craig Desson