Badly needed elders' homes delayed by COVID-19 in northern Quebec Cree communities

The opening of three badly needed elders' homes in northern Quebec Cree communities will be delayed due to COVID-19. 

The 32-bed homes, each with some specialized services, were slated to open by the end of 2021 in Waskaganish, Mistissini and the largest Cree community of Chisasibi, located more than 1,400 kilometres north of Montreal.

They now won't open until the summer or fall of 2022 because of a desire to keep outside construction workers away from Cree communities to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"It's really to ensure that there is no big influx of people coming into Eeyou Istchee," said Bella M. Petawabano, chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB), using the traditional name for the Cree territory in Quebec. 

We need them tomorrow. - Daniel St. Amour, executive director of the CBHSSJB

The Cree health board has reorganized its summer building schedule to focus on projects that can be completed by a local workforce. These include tasks such as land surveying, site preparation and building infrastructure, among other things. 

For Petawabano and Daniel St. Amour, the executive director of the CBHSSJB, the delay is a disappointment. 

'We're losing elders in Montreal'

Cree elders needing care must now travel to larger centres in the South, such as Montreal, to live in long-term care facilities. 

Rodolphe Beaulieu Poulin/CBHSSJB

Since the beginning of the pandemic, three Cree elders have died of the disease while in long-term care or rehabilitation centres in the South.

"We're losing elders in Montreal," said St. Amour. "We need [local elders' homes] tomorrow ... in the best case, we should have [had] them before the crisis."

The decision to focus on jobs that can be done by local people was also made to avoid competing with Cree communities trying to get badly needed housing units up this summer. It's also in line with the Cree health board's priority to hire locals wherever possible.   "I don't want to have too much impact on the community," said St. Amour. He says all the work planned for this summer can be done while respecting physical distancing and other COVID-19 measures.

No more than 6-month delay

The three full-sized elders' homes will act as regional hubs and will also include some specialized services. In Chisasibi, for example, there will be a specialized regional dementia wing. 

This is all tied to a major $700-million funding agreement signed last October with the Quebec government that will also see a 52-bed regional hospital built in Chisasibi by 2025.

On top of the new elders' homes and hospital, the funding will go toward building six other health facilities in smaller Cree communities. Four of them will offer mental health services, either for youth or adults, and the other two will be for specialized needs.

The provincial funding will also go toward building 500 staff housing units and three birthing homes to be built in Chisasibi, Waskaganish and Mistissini. 

While St. Amour said COVID-19 has meant a shuffling of the short-term priorities, it so far hasn't meant any more than a six-month delay.