State of emergency declared for northern First Nations health care

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Northern Manitoba First Nations have declared a state of emergency, after years of insufferable waits and a lack of health-care services — and racism is to blame, says a doctor trying to change the system.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/05/2022 (189 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Northern Manitoba First Nations have declared a state of emergency, after years of insufferable waits and a lack of health-care services — and racism is to blame, says a doctor trying to change the system.

“Racism is the No. 1 public health emergency for First Nations in Canada, and particularly in Manitoba,” said Dr. Barry Lavallee, chief executive officer of Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin (Northern Peoples’ Wellness) Inc. It was established to work towards health transformation for First Nations in northern Manitoba.

This week, elected leaders representing 23 First Nations in the North unanimously declared a state of emergency on health services. The declaration followed the federal government’s move to have northern nursing stations open to emergencies only last week, because of a nursing shortage.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES “Racism is the No. 1 public health emergency for First Nations in Canada, and particularly in Manitoba,” said Dr. Barry Lavallee, chief executive officer of Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin (Northern Peoples’ Wellness) Inc.

The First Nations leaders hoped to get the attention of federal and provincial governments, and spur action on much-needed resources and long-overdue reforms.

“We are tired of this,” Lavallee said in an interview Thursday, referring to the root of the problem as “Indigenous-specific racism.”

“We want to take control of the health-care system for First Nations in the North. We want to run the Northern (Health) region. We could do a better job,” said the doctor, who is Métis.

For example, a preventative, cost-effective measure such as screening First Nations people for the early stages of kidney disease isn’t getting funding, Lavallee said. Rather than catching it and treating it with medication, patients end up presenting in the emergency room with advanced disease and needing dialysis.

“We proved that in a very large population-based study with my colleagues, and yet the provincial government did not allocate any monies for prevention,” the doctor said. “We have failed First Nations people miserably.”

Lavallee said he’s written to Health Minister Audrey Gordon, who met recently with northern health officials and service delivery organizations to address concerns and discuss solutions.

Gordon was not available for an interview Thursday. A statement from the province said she’s reached out to Lavallee’s organization and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. about improving health and wellness services in northern Manitoba “and for advice on other ways to fight racism in our health-care system.”

Lavallee said there there can be no improvements until racism is addressed.

“We can’t talk about access to health care for First Nations in the North without addressing Indigenous-specific racism as it manifests in Northern Ontario and across Manitoba,” he said. “It can kill people and can maim people and can deny people help. This is going on all the time.

“Everybody knows this. The minister knows this. (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau knows this. The (health system) CEOs, they all know this.”

Nursing shortages in First Nations have long been a problem, Lavallee said, adding so has an outdated formula for distributing nurses and physicians to remote communities with growing populations.

When southern Manitoba experiences a nursing shortage, the health outcomes for the predominantly white population aren’t the same as for First Nations members, said Lavallee.

“If a nursing shortage occurs in Steinbach versus Norway House, the outcomes are markedly different… The differential to actually improve health outcomes for all of Manitobans really requires us to bring First Nations health status to the same level. And when that happens, everybody else improves by us changing the system.”

In a statement late Thursday, the federal government said it’s working toward greater First Nations control and delivery of health-care services.

Indigenous Services Canada statement said it is working to “co-develop distinctions-based Indigenous health legislation. We know there is much work to do to close the gap in access to quality health care between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, and we must be relentless in these efforts.”

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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