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This article was published 18/6/2018 (1033 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
While some Winnipeggers have been outraged over emergency room closures and changes, the residents of Cross Lake have been waiting for the construction of a 24-hour health complex for more than two decades.
Located more than 530 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Cross Lake is home to about 9,000 people. Residents need to travel to either Winnipeg or Thompson to receive most medical services, including blood work, dialysis and to give birth.
Many take the bus to Winnipeg — a 15-hour ride. There are about five medevacs that leave the community daily, costing as much as $10,000 per flight. That adds up to more than $18 million annually. Depending on the reason for the trip, the provincial or federal government picks up the tab.
Chief Cathy Merrick has had enough.
"I was on council when I declared a state of emergency in terms of the health of our people in 2006," she said. "Twelve years later, we’re here… and it’s still going to be a state of emergency until we have our facility."
Merrick said she doesn't understand why the province pays the huge cost of Lifeflight air ambulances, but hasn't agreed to chip in for the health complex. In 2016-17, the province spent $6.7 million on the Lifeflight program provincewide.
She and band councillor Donnie McKay went to the legislature last week hoping to meet with Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen to discuss provincial funding for phase two of Cross Lake’s planned health complex. The amount of funding they would request hasn’t been determined.
In July 2016, then-federal health minister Jane Philpott (who is now the minister of Indigenous services) travelled to Cross Lake to announce $40 million in support. Canada’s contribution has since been upgraded to $55 million for phase one.
The federal government's contribution wouldn't cover the entire project, however. A birthing centre, palliative care and a dialysis unit – a priority because an estimated 1,200 people have diabetes in the community and may one day need dialysis – fall under provincial responsibility, Merrick said.
In 1964, the provincial and federal governments signed an agreement transferring those responsibilities to the province, the chief said.
Last week, Goertzen repeatedly said the federal government should pay the entire cost of the project.
"The federal government made an announcement a couple of years ago that they were going to build a hospital in Cross Lake, and we weren’t involved in the announcement. We weren’t there," he said. "And now it seems like the federal government has either changed their commitment or didn’t have enough funding involved. We think the federal government should fulfil the commitment that they made to the people of Cross Lake."
Goertzen said provincial health staff is in talks with Cross Lake to find out about their potential plans.
The chief and council refuted the claim, saying they’ve been trying to get the Manitoba government to the table for meetings since the PCs were elected in 2016. The former NDP government supported the project, the chief said, and their NDP MLA, Amanda Lathlin, has been challenging the Tories during question period about whether the government will recommit to the health complex.
On Thursday, Merrick and McKay took about 100 birthday cards, which were signed by Cross Lake residents, to the legislature. They were intended for Goertzen, who celebrated his birthday last week. In the cards, residents urge him to reconsider funding.
Della Robinson wrote an emotional plea, explaining why the community desperately needs a dialysis unit.
"As you celebrate your birthday with cake and ice cream, please think of me. I am a 48-year-old woman who is in stage 3 kidney failure, I will eventually need to be on dialysis in the near future. (My right kidney failed completely)," she wrote. "Ever since I found out about my kidney disease, I made up my mind that I will not move anywhere to keep me alive. I would rather be here in my hometown with family by my side."
In an interview, Robinson said she gets flown to Winnipeg for doctor appointments every few months. She doesn't want to leave home for long-term care.
"I don’t like being away from my family. I get really, really lonely when I’m away, especially having to go live in Winnipeg. I don’t want that for myself," she said.
The Cross Lake nursing station doesn't have proper diagnostic services. When McKay had a heart attack, nurses had to send his electrocardiogram test by fax to a doctor in Thompson. He waited in agony for hours until the doctor called with the results. He was sent to the Thompson hospital for treatment, then flown to Winnipeg for a week of care, then back to Thompson for another week of bed rest.
"It’s ridiculous. It’s life and death, I would say, for our people every day," McKay said.
In Cross Lake, suicide attempts skyrocketed in 2016 with hundreds reported every month that spring. Nine people have died by suicide since December 2015, most of them teens and young adults.
Promoting mental wellness would be a top priority in the new health facility, said Coun. Hanson 'Cooper' Richard.
"We got hit, and we got hit hard. Everybody felt it. Everybody was scared. You had to watch your kids and make sure if there’s anybody that needed help, you were there to help," Richard said of the suicide crisis. "The best way for me to help is to get the infrastructure in for the hospital."
Richard also said installing new water and sewage treatment facilities to replace aging systems will also be necessary before a health complex gets up and running.
Resident Noretta Miswaggon has been one of the loudest advocates of a new health complex. The 45-year-old mother had to travel to Thompson or Winnipeg to give birth to her 11 children.
She wishes other mothers wouldn't have to make the same risky trip by bus, which she said jeopardizes their pregnancies.
Still, she believes a dialysis unit is the No. 1 need in Cross Lake.
"I hope we can get at least a dialysis unit. At least for those of us who go out of the community to give birth, we get to come home after our babies are born," Miswaggon said.
She also hopes a health complex will boost morale in the community. Setting aside space for the complex will begin this summer, regardless of whether the province agrees to fund the project.
"It’s sad how the older population tells the younger population, ‘Oh, get out of Cross Lake, there’s nothing here,'" Miswaggon said.
"What’s a youth supposed to think when their parents or grandparents or aunties or uncles tell them, ‘Get out of here, there’s nothing here.’ We should be telling them, ‘Get an education, there’s so much to do here. You could be a doctor, a nurse, an administrator in this new hospital'... we need to instill hope and that health complex will do that."
Merrick said she will continue to lobby the province for funding until it comes around.
"Even though the province does not think they have a responsibility for us as Aboriginal people, we’re Manitobans. It doesn’t matter if I’m an Aboriginal, I’m still a Manitoban. and they are responsible for the health of my people," she said.
"We’re well on our way to the construction of this beautiful building, and it’s time. It’s about damn time that the governments come and build something in our nation for our people."