Leaders of First Nations in northern Ontario ask for seat at health-care table

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepared to meet with Canada's premiers to discuss health-care transfers, First Nations leaders from across northern Ontario called for a seat at the table.

Indigenous leaders spoke out Tuesday about health-care inequities in their communities

A man stands at a podium.
Chief Gaius Wesley of Kaschechwan First Nation, at a news conference Tuesday in Ottawa, called for First Nations representation at the ongoing health-care talks on Parliament Hill. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepared to meet Tuesday with Canada's premiers to discuss health-care transfers, First Nations leaders from across northern Ontario called for a seat at the table.

In Ottawa, Kashechewan First Nation Chief Gaius Wesley described how his community, located near the James Bay coast, has faced systemic barriers accessing health care.

"[There are] only three nurses to take care of approximately 2,000 people in my community," he told reporters at a news conference.

Wesley said many children from his community had respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and had to wait up to 10 days to be transported by helicopter for treatment to larger communities south of them.

Wesley said reconciliation should include efforts to give First Nations more autonomy over decisions around how they deliver health care to their communities.

"Our people are dying within these bureaucratic systems that are in place," Wesley said.

"Or better yet, we need to abolish the bureaucratic processes that are in place and hand these programs and services in the hands of the First Nations people that will redesign them. That will design them to better reflect the needs of the people. That's what we need to do."

A woman stands at a podium with a man in the background.
Grand Chief Alison Linklater of Mushkegowuk Tribal Council also spoke in Ottawa on Tuesday. 'Major shortages of human health resources are things that our First Nation communities have faced long before COVID,' Linklater said. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Alison Linklater was also in Ottawa, and said First Nations need to have a say over decisions that affect their health care.

The Mushkegowuk Council represents seven First Nations in Ontario's far north.

Linklater said the health-care crisis is nothing new to Indigenous communities.

"Major shortages of human health resources are things that our First Nation communities have faced long before COVID," she said. 

"And I'm sorry that our country is going through this, but we have faced this for numerous years."

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus said a recent house fire in the remote Cree community of Peawanuck highlighted the lack of services in many First Nations.

A 10-year-old girl died in the fire because the community did not have access to a fire truck.

"First Nation communities are living under and the lack of basic services, basic infrastructure," Angus said.

"A community was left without fire services when the government knew that this community needed fire services."

'We should not be an afterthought'

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) simultaneously held a news conference in Thunder Bay, Ont., to support the calls of the Omushkego chiefs. NAN is a political organization that represents 49 First Nations across Treaties 9 and 5 in northern Ontario, including the eight Omushkego communities.

A man in a dark shirt.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Derek Fox says First Nations shouldn't be 'an afterthought' while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the premiers to discuss health-care transfers. (Logan Turner/CBC)

"Right now, the prime minister is meeting with the premiers behind closed doors to discuss funding for health-care delivery across the entire country," Grand Chief Derek Fox told CBC News.

"NAN should be there. Mushkego [leaders] should be there. First Nations should be there ... but they are making these 10-year plans without us. We should not be an afterthought."

The NAN grand chief said many First Nations across northern Ontario are in a constant state of emergency, dealing with high rates of mental health and addictions challenges, long waits and inadequate health-care access, and not enough resources to address the issues.

"We're hearing about the doctor and nursing shortages in southern Ontario, and closures of some emergency centres. This has been a common occurrence in Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario for many, many years," Fox said.

He called for Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Trudeau to respond to their demands to be included in high-level discussions about sustainable, long-term health-care funding.

Fox added there needs to be a long-term strategy to build more quality health centres, and have more doctors and nurses in communities, and to give First Nations the resources and authority to govern and administer their own health services. 

He pointed to the trilateral conversations that happened during the COVID-19 outbreak and the capacity that was quickly built in NAN First Nations.

"This can work. This can save lives. We have demonstrated that we can come up with solutions that not only directly benefit our community members, but we'll get rid of that red tape and in the long run reduce the costs of health-care delivery."

Health minister's response

When asked about the exclusion of Indigenous leaders from Tuesday's talks, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos's office said the federal government regularly engages with Indigenous communities on health-related issues.

"Indigenous Peoples face unique challenges when it comes to having fair and equitable access to quality and culturally safe health-care services, and we must continue to work in partnership with First Nations, Inuit and Métis to properly address these gaps," the statement to CBC News said.

With files from Logan Turner and Brett Forester