Health concerns in remote First Nation in Ontario not taken seriously, says deputy chief

The deputy chief of Fort Albany First Nation in remote northern Ontario says health concerns in her community aren’t taken seriously, and members often don’t receive proper care until they travel elsewhere.

Charlotte Nakoochee gave the example of an elder who discovered he had a tumour only after travelling to Timmins, Ont., a two-hour flight from Fort Albany, which is located along the James Bay Coast.

It’s like they don’t take our people seriously.– Charlotte Nakoochee, deputy chief of Fort Albany First Nation

Nakoochee said the elder had gone to the clinic in Fort Albany several times, but the nurse didn’t find anything wrong. 

“A couple of weeks ago, he happened to be in Timmins for another thing, and because he wasn’t feeling well, he decided to go to” a hospital emergency department, she said.

“I feel like this could have been caught earlier if they paid attention, if they took his concerns about his health seriously,” Nakoochee added. “Sometimes it’s just bothersome where it’s like they don’t take our people seriously.”

Over 2,000 people live in Fort Albany and nearby Kashechewan First Nation, but the fly-in communities don’t have full-time physicians. A locum is brought in about five times a month. 

They have a small clinic with some nurses and a nurse practitioner who also flies into the community, but Nakoochee said it is under-resourced.

“We don’t have the proper medical equipment to properly diagnose our members in the community and even when they get referred out of town, like to either move towards treatment,” she said.

Nakoochee said it can take up to two weeks for someone to get a doctor’s appointment. If a serious issue arises, they need to get to Ontario cities like Timmins or Sudbury by medevac.

Alison Linklater, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven Cree First Nations in Ontario’s far north, says equitable access to health care is a priority for her. (Submitted by Alison Linklater)

Alison Linklater, the newly elected grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven Cree First Nations in Ontario’s far north, said equitable access to health care is a major priority for her.

“To have an elder go through that is not right,” Linklater said.

“In our culture, we take good care of our elders. And to have this happen, it’s very, very sad.”

None of these communities along the James Bay have permanent doctors.– France Gélinas, Nickel Belt MPP, Ontario NDP’s health critic 

Linklater is a former nurse and has been a consultant, working behind the scenes to obtain funding for mental health services.

She said she is connecting with health-care providers in her region to start a dialogue and work together “to really find solutions to fix our health-care systems locally and regionally.”

France Gélinas, MPP for Nickel Belt, says inequitable access to health-care services in remote First Nations has been an issue for the 15 years she’s been the Ontario NDP’s health critic. (Roger Corriveau/CBC)

Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas said inequitable access to health-care services in remote First Nations has been an issue for the 15 years she has been the NDP’s health critic.

Gélinas said physicians normally fly into communities for short periods of time. They often face cultural barriers there, she said, and don’t get to know their patients because they are never established for long.

“None of these communities along the James Bay have permanent doctors.”

Gélinas said First Nations have proposed health-care models that would work in their communities, but the changes are never implemented.

“At the provincial level, they say it’s a federal responsibility, and the federal [government] says, ‘We’ll have to wait to see what the provincial [government] does,'” she said.

“Nobody takes the lead. Nobody is proactive.”

Split responsibilities

According to Indigenous Services Canada, federal, provincial and territorial governments “share some degree of jurisdiction” for health-care services for Indigenous Peoples.

“Indigenous Peoples are included in the per-capita allocations of funding from the federal fiscal transfer, and are entitled to access insured provincial and territorial health services as residents of a province or territory,” it says on its website.

“Indigenous Services Canada funds or directly provides services for First Nations and Inuit that supplement those provided by provinces and territories, including primary health-care, health promotion and supplementary health benefits.”

In an email to CBC News, Ontario’s Patient Ombudsman said it does not currently have any complaints related to access to health care in remote First Nations.

The Patient Ombudsman helps resolve complaints from Ontario patients, or their caregivers, related to their experiences in hospitals, long-term care homes, and home and community-care support service organizations.

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