'We need those people to help us:' Attawapiskat chief, politicians anxious about loss of health workers

Provincial and federal representatives of the riding Timmins-James Bay have sent a letter to the head of the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) in light of allegations that mental health workers have been mistreated.

At least 7 mental health workers alleged 'bullying' and 'harassment' by health authority supervisors

Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett, left, NDP MP Charlie Angus, centre, and former chief Bruce Shisheesh, right, hold hands during a visit to Attawapiskat, Ont., after a suicide crisis was declared in that community. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Provincial and federal representatives of the Timmins-James Bay riding have sent a letter to the head of the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) in light of allegations that mental health workers have been mistreated.

WAHA provides health care to people in communities across the James Bay Coast. 

A CBC News exclusive revealed seven workers left the organization over three years because of what they described as "bullying" and "harassment" by their supervisors.

In a letter to WAHA chief executive Bernie Schmidt, MP Charlie Angus and MPP Gilles Bisson wrote that they "recognize" it is not their role to become involved in the particulars of workplace disputes.

But they are concerned that mental health workers say physical and sexual abuse is prevalent in coastal communities. 

"For us the question is always, 'Are there the resources and the support teams there to deal with this [in the communities]?'" Angus said. 

"That's something we need to know."

Ignace Gull, new chief of Attawapiskat, was shocked to hear of allegations that WAHA mental health workers have been bullied off the job over the past three years. (Ignace Gull/Facebook)

'We need those people to help'

CBC asked WAHA to comment on this story, but has not heard back. 

In a statement sent earlier on behalf of WAHA, Schmidt wrote that the health authority does not air human resources issues in public, but that his team is confident in their employees.

Meanwhile, the new chief of Attawapiskat, Ignace Gull, said he was "shocked" to learn that the organization has lost mental health workers.

"We don't want to see that," he said. "We need those people to help us along the way, because we still have a lot of work to do in the community."

Former chief aware of issues

Former chief Bruce Shisheesh said he's not surprised by the recent allegations — and said he heard complaints about supervisors at WAHA.

Shisheesh said he asked the organization to fire a manager in April because Attawapiskat was not getting enough mental health services during the ongoing state of emergency called after a spate of suicide attempts.

"I want WAHA to look after my people," he said.

"Even though I'm not a chief anymore, it's still a concern. It involves my health too. It involves my family back home. It involves my hometown."

After allegations made against staff at the Weeneebayko Health Authority, Timmins-James Bay MPP Gilles Bisson and MP Charlie Angus penned this letter to WAHA CEO Bernie Schmidt.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: