James Bay Coast waits decade for new hospital, minister says it's a priority

An agreement to build a new hospital for people living on the James Bay Coast in northern Ontario has seen little progress since it was signed a decade ago. But the Ontario government recently re-committed itself to the project in the 2017 budget.

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins says the project has been identified as a 'priority'

An agreement was signed in 2007 between the Ontario and federal governments to replace the Weeneebayko General Hospital in Moose Factory, Ont. (WAHA)

In 2007, an agreement was signed between the federal and Ontario governments to fund a new main hospital on the James Bay Coast in northern Ontario.

Ten years later, little has been done.

The provincial government recently re-committed itself to the plan in the 2017 budget. 

In an email statement to CBC News, Health Minister Eric Hoskins called the project a "priority that will address growing demand for health care services, and support new and innovative models of care."

"[The] budget makes it clear that the local community has a partner in the Ontario Government," Hoskins wrote.

But Timmins-James Bay MPP Gilles Bisson is not convinced anything new is happening on this file. 

'Should've stayed on and tried to deliver'

"This is essentially more of the same," Bisson said.

"It's a political statement from the government that they care about these things, but action is really the lacking part of this."

The delay has left people who live on the coast anxious for answers, according to Kashechewan First Nation Chief Leo Friday. 

"Those people who signed that agreement should've stayed on and tried to deliver," Friday said.

"We need all kinds of stuff in the hospital because our people are going out to Kingston, Timmins, Sudbury and all over the place ... for special treatments.

"I think it would be better to have some kind of a good hospital that will service all the conditions of our health."

'No reason why in 2017 those services are not available'

A new general hospital for the James Bay region would reduce the number of trips patients have to take south, according to France Gelinas, who is Nickel Belt MPP and the Ontario NDP health critic.

"Sure, we'll never do double lung transplants on the James Bay Coast. We can all agree to this, but there are lots of other services that could be and should be available to the residents," Gelinas said.

"There is no reason why in 2017 those services are not available, except that they don't have the buildings, they don't have the facility and they're still waiting." 

The Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, which serves medical needs across the coast, is still negotiating the project's cost with the Ministry of Health, according to president and CEO Bernie Schmidt.

The existing general hospital is on the island of Moose Factory, Ont. A new site is being proposed across the river on the mainland in Moosonee, Ont., according to Schmidt.

Moosonee or Moose Factory?

But there is still a debate over where the new facility should be built, according to Moosonee Mayor Wayne Taipale, who was part of the project's discussions 10 years ago.

"We have to look at the health care for the people in the area. What is best for them," Taipale said.

"As long as we keep debating this, our health care is not going to get any better."

The town of Moosonee has donated approximately 12 hectares of land in the south end of the community for the new hospital, according to Taipale. 

While planning for the new facility and location continues, Gelinas said she hopes it does not take another decade. 

"It never seems to be a priority. They [government] will always kind of hide back towards, 'we want the First Nations to take the lead,'" Gelinas said.

"I'm all for being respectful, but the First Nations have spoken ... their part of the work is done. They have identified the needs."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a network reporter for CBC News based in Toronto. She previously worked in Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter @CBCOlivia. Send story ideas to olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.