More supports needed for First Nations patients sent to Winnipeg for long-term medical treatment: report

A new report suggests that Anishininew people from the Island Lake region in Manitoba who relocate to Winnipeg for medical treatment face social isolation, a lack of affordable housing and lack of support services.

Patients face months or years away from home for treatment unavailable in their region

Women from Wasagamack attend the launch of the report on the experiences of Island Lake Anishininew patients at the Thunderbird House on Wednesday. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

A new report suggests that Anishininew people from the Island Lake region in Manitoba who relocate to Winnipeg for medical treatment face social isolation, a lack of affordable housing and lack of support services.

"It seems like our people are brought into the city and dumped here, and they are on their own," said Andy Wood.

Wood is from Wasagamack First Nation and is the executive director at Neewin Health Care Inc.

"They're not here because they want to be here, they're here because they have to be here if they want to live any longer," he said.

The report, titled Living in the City: Documenting the Lived Experiences of the Island Lake Anishininew People, looks at the social, economic and cultural challenges faced by relocated patients. It was compiled by Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing: Ongomiizwin—Research in partnership with Neewin Health Care, and was released by the Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives Wednesday at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg.

The Island Lake region is comprised of four First Nations — Garden Hill, Wasagamack, St. Theresa Point and Red Sucker Lake. An estimated 14,000 people live in the four communities.

Relocating for dialysis

The researchers interviewed 30 community members who relocated to Winnipeg with urgent or severe health conditions.

The majority of the people interviewed for the report were elderly, with many of them travelling to Winnipeg for the first time. Every single one of them talked about the isolation and loneliness that they experienced when living in the city.

"I would say 75 per cent of them are here for dialysis," said Wood. "The rest are here for heart disease and chemo for cancer, those major primary health care concerns."

There is one dialysis centre in the Island Lake region, at Garden Hill. The unit has six beds with a capacity to treat 18 patients a week and has a waiting list. Poor water and sewer infrastructure in the community also leads to frequent service disruptions.

Andy Wood is the executive director for Neewin Health Care Inc. He is hoping that the Island Lake region can get an Anishininew cultural centre in Winnipeg. (Lenard Monkman)

According to Wood, when Anishininew people have to relocate to Winnipeg for extended periods for medical reasons, they find themselves struggling to get financial assistance due to quibbles over who is fiscally responsible — the federal or provincial government.

"Our people are what we've always termed 'a jurisdictional quagmire,'" said Wood.

"The federal government will look after people while they are settling here for three months. And after that, that's it for them."

For many who relocate for extended periods of time or permanently, they are moving to the city with no rental history, no credit and a lack of systems knowledge.

Distinct culture

The distinct language and culture of the Anishininew adds to the complications that people from the region face when they relocate to Winnipeg for medical services. In Winnipeg, health care supports are available for Cree and Anishinaabe communities. The Anishininew people have to choose between them.

"Everybody else calls us Oji-Cree, which denotes that we are half Ojibway and half Cree, but we're not. We're a unique language, culture, by ourselves," said Wood.

The report recommends reducing the need to relocate people for medical treatment by improving the medical services available locally. When people do have to relocate to Winnipeg, the report recommends more community supports, including an Anishininew cultural centre that would provide space for people to talk to each other in their language, share traditional meals, and allow for the community to receive programming.

"That's why the study is important," said Wood.

"It focuses a lot of attention on the lack of services and the hopelessness that these people feel when they are supposed to get here to get well, meanwhile they are getting worse."

Other recommendations included setting up liaisons in Winnipeg who could help people get to their medical appointments, find housing and financial assistance and help patients navigate the medical system.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1