First Nations health emergencies creating 'collective post-traumatic stress disorder'

Indigenous leaders told a committee of MPs Thursday that the conditions in their communities are similar to what one would find in a war zone and that their people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

'We need to move beyond these states of emergency and crises,' Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says

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Nishnawbe Aski First Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Dr Michael Kirlew from the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority speak to the Commons Aboriginal Affairs committee

Indigenous leaders told a committee of MPs Thursday that the conditions in their communities are similar to what one would find in a war zone and that their people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The leaders from across Ontario were appearing before the indigenous affairs committee to discuss the health crises in their communities.

"It's a collective post-traumatic stress disorder, and I believe that, that's what we are dealing with in a lot of respects of the health issues faced by First Nations in this country," said Ontario regional Chief Isadore Day.

Speaking about a funeral he attended for a 10-year-old boy who committed suicide, Day said the situation could have been prevented with better health-care provision in the community.

Around 150 people of all ages took part in a candlelight suicide awareness walk Tuesday night in Attawapiskat, Ont., where leaders declared an emergency after a spate of attempted suicides. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The boy's mother was addicted to opiates and was participating in a methadone program. The boy's father had diabetes and had to leave the community for treatment. The boy, left with his mother, was bullied in school until he took his own life, Day said.

"We see levels of PTSD in our people that is consistent with what is seen in war zones," said  John Cutfeet, board chair of the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority. "The health-care system for indigenous people is atrocious and dysfunctional," he added.

Cutfeet related a story about a woman who, 25 years ago, was forced to give birth in an outhouse because she was turned away from a nursing station. He said that all Canadians should feel shame that health care has not improved since then.

'Not just a little inferior, far inferior'

Michael Kirlew, a physician who has worked in the Sioux Lookout first Nation Health Authority for 10 years, gave a vivid description of his experience.

"In my 10 years, I can say that First Nations individuals who live on reserves receive a level of health care that's far inferior to what other people get, not just a little inferior, far inferior," he said.

"Imagine a young person who breaks their leg. They come into the clinic and their leg is on a virtual right angle and you do not have adequate supplies of the pain medication that they need," Kirlew said.

"It takes nine and a half hours for that medivac to come in and that entire time, because the supply of morphine is not there in sufficient quantities, you can hear them screaming the entire time, that is the reality," he added.

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day of Serpent River First Nations appeared before a Commons committee Thursday to address the health crisis facing many indigenous communities in Ontario. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Kirlew went on to describe a situation where he's had to watch children gasp for air for hours on end waiting for a medivac because they had run out of asthma medication and oxygen.

"Imagine us sitting here as parents, watching our children, that's what's happening to them," he added.

Kirlew went on to say that the longer it takes for the federal government to address the poor state of health for First Nations, the more children will suffer and die.

Health emergencies

The northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency last weekend over several suicide attempts, but other First Nations communities in Ontario also declared public health emergencies earlier this year.

The Ontario government announced on Wednesday it would provide Attawapiskat with $2 million in funding for four mental health workers, up to five nurses, two security people, one communications person and a co-ordinator — 13 staff in total — for 30 days.

Federal health officials said on Tuesday that some 18 health workers were being dispatched immediately support the Attawapiskat community.

In addition to Day and Cutfeet, the indigenous affairs committee heard from Jonathan Solomon, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, and Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

Fiddler said in a statement issued before the meeting that he would ask the federal government to help develop "immediate action" to significantly improve the state of health in First Nations.

"It is shameful that after 140 years under the Indian Act our First Nations are still struggling to meet the basics of everyday life. Many of our people have lost hope over the generations, and our communities are in perpetual crisis.

"We need to move beyond these states of emergency and crises and begin to work toward longer-term solutions — we have to address the underlying issues," he said.

With files from CBC's Susana Mas