WINNIPEG — Chiefs of four remote First Nations in northeastern Manitoba are calling for the provincial and federal governments to build a health facility that can treat ongoing mental health andaddictioncrises for their growing populations.
The chiefs from the Island Lake region estimate 15,000 to 18,000 people live in the area, but none of the four communities has a hospital to address these issues.
Grand Chief Scott Harper with the area tribal council or Anishininew Okimawin said it's the duty of the federal government to provide substantive and equal health care and social services to First Nations comparable to what is provided in non-Indigenous communities across the country.
"An urgent strategy is needed to address colonizational, intergenerational traumatic effects combined with decades of insufficient resources and funding, which has created a pandemic of suffering," he said Wednesday.
The area is home to Red Sucker Lake, St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack and Garden Hill First Nations. The communities are only accessible by winter road or air, with the exception of Wasagamack, which doesn't have an airport.
The nations have nursing stations, but the chiefs said they provide limited treatment options and are severely understaffed.
Chief Charles Knott said in his community of Garden Hill, there are four nurses to care for roughly 5,000 people.
People have to be transported to Winnipeg for medical procedures. In some cases, this is done by medevac and puts individuals at risk.
"We have lost community members from moving them too much to try and take them to the airport … it is a struggle," said Knott.
Proposals for the construction of a hospital have been submitted to Ottawa in the past, the chiefs said. They did not say why they were rejected.
"We have been negotiating with Canada for decades to fund our hospital and related facilities while our members keep dying from preventable deaths," said Harper.
Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Elvin Flett, chief of St. Theresa Point, said any other community in the country with the population of Island Lake would have a fully operational hospital.
"There are communities that have less population than we do and they have access right in their own community to primary health-care services," Flett said. "Why are the governments ignoring the cry for help from the four First Nations of Island Lake when we say we need the hospital?"
Leaders are also renewing calls for a regional addictions treatment centre, as well as supports for land-based and mental health programming.
Families from the area walked to Parliament Hill in 2018 to press Canada on the need for a rehab centre for a growing methamphetamine addiction in the communities.
Chief Sam Knott of Red Sucker Lake First Nation said his community has seen the toll addictions and mental health issues have had on members in recent weeks.
The nation called a state of emergency last month after two people died by suicide and more than a dozen others attempted to kill themselves.
The community recently held a funeral for a youth who died by suicide. It shut down the school to allow teachers and students to mourn.
"We need a substantial amount of support on the ground, especially counselling."
Sam Knott said he has reached out to provincial and federal ministers to advocate for mental health resources and to push for a conversation around a health facility in the area.
Sarah Guillemard, Manitoba's minister for mental health, said Wednesday the province is willing to work with the federal government to come up with long-term solutions.
"We're happy to join the federal government in those discussions to look at ways that we can help support the communities, especially in the rural and northern regions where these struggles really are taking hold," she said.
Guillemard added an outreach team from the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre has been in contact with Red Sucker Lake and plans to visit the community to offer support.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2022.
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press