Thunder Bay

Dental crisis facing area First Nations, says Sioux Lookout health authority

The health authority serving northern Ontario First Nations in the Sioux Lookout area says hundreds of children are waiting for urgent care, and one person has died from complications relating to dental infections.

Indigenous Services Canada says it is working with health authority to improve dental services

The Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority says inadequate dental care for its communities has been a longstanding issue exacerbated by the pandemic, and currently, hundreds of children are waiting for dental surgery. (Shutterstock / chanchai plongern)

The Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority in northwestern Ontario is calling on the federal government to address what it says is a dental crisis in its communities. 

Lack of access to care during the pandemic is resulting in serious consequences, said Janet Gordon, chief operating officer for the authority. The health authority said there has already been one preventable death, that it says stemmed from dental infections leading to sepsis and complications. 

Hundreds of others are waiting for urgent care in northern communities that rely on visiting dental professionals, or need to travel outside of their communities for care, Gordon said. She said that includes a long list of children waiting for dental surgery.

"I think it's certainly a dire sort of situation, for all age groups," she stated.

"I think … there was certainly poor service to a lot of our communities before COVID; so a lot of dental services were not being delivered in our communities. And during COVID, there was certainly no service provided at the community level."

"And then last May [of 2020], when we started talking about resumption of services … Indigenous Services Canada did not get any services into any of our communities until November, December of 2020."

Many dental clinic spaces in communities also did not meet health requirements put in place during the pandemic, she said, further limiting services. 

The Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority is calling on the federal government to improve access to dental services in communities, she said, and to provide support for the authority to open a new dental clinic located in Sioux Lookout. 

Serious complications, and hundreds of children waiting for urgent care. The Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority says the pandemic has amplified longstanding problems with dental care in its First Nations. Find out why they're calling it a crisis. 9:27

In a written statement, Indigenous Services Canada said it remains committed to working with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority to improve access to dental services.

It said since November, dental services for the First Nations have been ramping up, and that throughout the pandemic, non-insured health benefits (NIHB) program has continued to provide coverage for dental services and medical transportation for eligible patients.

"Between November 4, 2020, and June 2, 2021, dentists and dental hygienists contracted to the NIHB program have made 89 community visits to 26 communities, providing care to 7,158 patients," the statement reads. 

"Also, from December 2, 2020, to June 17, 2021, 182 children have been treated through the dental surgery program at Meno Ya Win Health Centre in Sioux Lookout."

Gordon said referrals for urgent care have been possible for some patients, but not enough people are getting timely care, or the regular care that might be expected in other communities. 

She said a new dental clinic is a priority, as one formerly run by Indigenous Services Canada, cannot reopen due to longstanding structural issues.

Opening a new clinic would also serve as the first phase of what the authority sees as a more long-term goal of transitioning to First Nations management of dental services, she said.

In the written statement supplied to CBC News, Indigenous Services Canada said it continues "to explore options for the health authority to establish a facility through which dental services will be provided," and to "facilitate greater ownership and control of health service delivery by First Nations and Indigenous organizations."