Ontario's Ministry of Health stalling plans for northern field hospitals, says grand chief

The grand chief of an organization that represents 49 First Nations in northwestern Ontario says the province's Ministry of Health is undermining efforts to set up field hospitals for three northern regions of the province.

Indigenous Services Canada, regional hospitals, municipalities backed field hospitals in northern Ontario

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler wrote to Ontario Premier Doug Ford over his provincial health ministry's decision to stall plans to set up field hospitals in Timmins, Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The grand chief of an organization that represents 49 First Nations in northwestern Ontario says the province's Ministry of Health is undermining efforts to set up field hospitals for three northern regions of the province.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said Monday that the momentum to set up field hospitals in Timmins, Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout stalled following a teleconference late last week with provincial officials who resisted the idea. 

"Those discussions are now pretty much stalled and not progressing the way we had hoped," said Fiddler.

He said medical resources in northern regions of the province are scarce at the best of times.

"The danger or the risk of the health care system getting overwhelmed is real and we need to put in plans to address that." 

Fiddler wrote to Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Friday saying that Indigenous Services Canada, regional hospitals and municipalities all support for the idea of field hospitals that would treat not only First Nations patients, but the regional population.

"Field hospitals in the north are non-negotiable. The health and welfare of residents in the north, which includes the citizens of NAN, is non-negotiable," wrote Fiddler in the letter which was copied to the mayors of Timmins, Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout.

The letter said Indigenous Services Canada set up calls on field hospital planning "with a commitment to move ahead in Timmins, Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay," wrote Fiddler.   

The letter said that during a field hospital call last Thursday an "[Ontario] Ministry of Health representative effectively stopped all progress on field hospitals in the north." The trajectory model used by Ontario to plan for extra beds "does not include First Nations' needs nor the geographical complexities of the north," according to the letter.

The letter said that it was "insulting" that provincial health officials "were so fond" of field hospital plans developed by NAN's task force that it "asked to use them in other cities, in southern Ontario." 

The Thunder Bay Health Sciences Centre would be tasked with dealing with all serious COVID-19 cases from Thunder Bay to Kenora, Ont. The hospital has 22 ICU beds and is hoping to free up between 150 to 200 additional beds.

Sioux Lookout's Meno ya Win Health Centre does not have an ICU, but it has "processes in place that support the care of ventilated patients," according to a spokesperson. 

Ontario says it's 'working with all parties' on field hospitals

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott's office in a statement denied it had stopped progress on the potential field hospitals and that it was holding a meeting on the issue Tuesday.

"Ontario's health's regional planning table is working with all parties with regards to field hospitals and conference centres," said the emailed statement.

The statement said the Ontario government was putting $37 million toward helping Indigenous communities deal with the pandemic, covering costs ranging from emergency food supplies to the set up of isolation facilities in remote First Nations to maintaining services at local airports.

Ontario has also built up "considerably more capacity" in test kit supplies and is currently finalizing a "renewed testing strategy" that "more proactively targets priority populations," said the statement.

Fiddler told CBC News that Ontario appeared to be moving ahead with plans to set up a field hospital in Moosonee, Ont., which would serve First Nations along Ontario's James Bay coast like Attawapiskat and Kashechewan.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada said ISC had provided $1 million to the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) to support their efforts and response to COVID-19. WAHA oversees health services in Moosonee, Moose Factory, Ont., and along Ontario's James Bay and Hudson Bay coast. 

ISC is in ongoing conversation with Ontario and the health authorities, the statement said.

"We will continue to work with all parties to ensure that health support and measures are in place for all individuals in Canada," the statement said.

The Ontario health minister's office said WAHA was working on a plan to increase the number of beds in the north, including creating space for 170 beds in Moosonee at Northern College and a hostel building. The Moose Factory hospital was also making plans to add 20 beds while the smaller hospitals in the James Bay communities of Attawapiskat and Fort Albany were working to add four and five beds respectively.

Eabametoong chief wants field hospital

The grand chief's push for the field hospitals comes as the fly-in First Nation of Eabametoong, 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, reported its first case of COVID-19 Sunday. 

Eabametoong Chief Harvey Yesno said the man, in his 40s, is now isolated in a home in the community.

"I am hoping this is isolated," said Yesno, whose community is a member of NAN.

"In the event we have several positives, that is not going to go well in the community. Right now there is a heightened anxiety level."

Yesno said he would like to test every person in the community of 1,600 for COVID-19, but he has heard little from Ontario or federal officials. He said he would like to see a Canadian Armed Forces field hospital set up in the area.

The community — which declared a state of emergency on April 1 — has a high rate of diabetes and the nursing station has recently seen a surge in patients complaining about ailments, he said.

"Our nursing station is getting overwhelmed," said Yesno. 

Yesno said the community currently has about 34 swabs for COVID-19 testing, 13 oxygen tanks, 271 N95 masks and 171 face shields at the nursing station.

Harvey Yesno, chief of Eabametoong First Nation, says he'd like to see a Canadian Armed Forces field hospital set up in his community. (Dave McSporran/Bottled Media)

Eabametoong has been under a boil water advisory for 6,822 days, which has affected the overall health of the community which has over 52 elders, said Yesno.

He said Eabametoong's health region, which is centred in Sioux Lookout, Ont., is already operating with only 40 per cent of the nursing resources it requires. The nurses that work in the communities are rotated in from urban centres such as Ottawa which are now facing increased pressure to deal with their own rising COVID-19 cases 

Mental health services for things like trauma counselling and grief counselling have also been temporarily suspended to keep traffic in and out of the community down, said Yesno. 

Fiddler said he has written several letters to the provincial and federal health ministers outlining the concerns and needs of NAN's communities. He has requested that laboratories in Timmins and Thunder Bay be equipped to analyze COVID-19 swabs to cut down on the five to seven day span it takes to get test results.

Fiddler has also requested the federal government reveal what supplies it has lined up to set up quarantine centres in First Nations and that it set aside 30,000 testing kits for NAN communities.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him