Whitehorse woman camps in the cold to protest lack of access to doctors

Devon Laing sitting outside her tent in downtown Whitehorse. She's protesting the lack of appropriate medical care for people like herself with chronic health issues. She spent a week in the tent before she says she had to take a 'time out' for her health. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)
Devon Laing sitting outside her tent in downtown Whitehorse. She's protesting the lack of appropriate medical care for people like herself with chronic health issues. She spent a week in the tent before she says she had to take a 'time out' for her health. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)

Devon Laing listens to an audiobook under three blankets in her tent.

That's where she was for the Yukon's first week of consistent snowfall: not for fun, but for a protest.

Her campaign, called Camping for Care, aims to bring attention to how difficult it is for her and other Yukoners like her to access appropriate medical care.

"I appreciate concerns for my safety, but I would appreciate having access to proper medical care a whole lot more," Laing, who started camping last week, told CBC on Monday.

Laing, who is from Wiikwemkoong First Nation in northern Ontario, has numerous health conditions, including pinched nerves in her back, degenerative disc disease and vestibular ocular reflex that triggers migraines.

She moved from Dawson City to Whitehorse with her husband so she could get intensive physiotherapy for her chronic conditions. Making the move meant giving up their home, so they could afford the treatment.

Then, they lost her family doctor because she changed her address to a place in Whitehorse.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

The territory is opening a new bilingual clinic in the capital on Monday with some walk-in services available to the public.

But Laing says it doesn't solve the issue for those with chronic conditions like her that are on the long list for a family doctor.

"It's great that they're opening a new clinic ... but what about the other 3,200 of us that are waiting for doctors? This is unacceptable," Laing said.

"How long does it take to hire a couple of doctors and a couple of nurses? It shouldn't take that long."

As of Nov. 4, there were 3,453 Yukoners on the waitlist, the Department of Health and Social Services confirmed in an email, though that number fluctuates constantly.

The national shortage of health-care workers in Canada has been well documented throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In October, Yukon's health minister said the vacancy rate in community nursing is over 40 per cent.

At the time, Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee called the shortage "very, very serious" and said it was affecting all communities including Whitehorse.

Laing initially pitched her tent in Rotary Park, next to the Yukon Legislature. That way, Laing said, the government would "see her every day." She moved after Whitehorse bylaw officers told her she broke a city law by staying in the park.

Sofia Ashley, the director of the Victoria Faulkner Women's Centre, heard about Devon's campaign on social media and decided to offer her a place to stay on their back lawn.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

"We really wanted to provide a space for her to amplify the message that she's trying to share with our community," Ashley said.

Ashley and other women made posters supporting Laing and put them up in their front window and next to the tent.

The issues that Laing's story brings up, like having to move to get appropriate medical care, are happening more and more often with the women who are passing through the centre, Ashley said.

"The amount of things that Devon's had to give up in order to keep seeking healthcare is crazy," she said. "She shouldn't have had to move, she shouldn't have had to give up her home.

"We're seeing this with people on a regular basis as well."

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

Laing is no longer camping in the cold. She's taking what she calls a "time out" for her own health, while she and her husband work on a new system to keep her warm and dry in the snow.

The goal is to get back out there as soon as possible to keep her advocacy work going.

The Yukon government says it won't comment on her campaign.