The Mushkegowuk Council of Chiefs, which represents seven First Nations in Ontario’s far north, has declared a state of emergency due to an ongoing health-care crisis caused by staffing shortages.
Among the seven is Kashechewan, located near the James Bay Coast, which announced last month it had only three nurses to treat 1,900 people.
Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Alison Linklater said the nurses have been forced to triage patients and can only provide emergency care.
“It puts our nurses at risk, but most importantly it puts the health of our members at risk,” Linklater said.
“It’s unsafe to have only three nurses in the community to provide that kind of care.”
Linklater said the community should have nine nurses to provide adequate primary-care services.
She said the community’s nearest hospital, in Moose Factory, is also facing a physician shortage.
Linklater has previously worked as a nurse and later took on an advisory role, advocating for mental-health care services in her community.
She said inadequate health care in remote First Nations has been a longstanding issue, and she would consider filing a human rights complaint due to the latest staffing crisis.
“We’ve been watching our health system just deteriorate over the past number of years,” she said.
“It’s time that we do something. We don’t want it to come to a point where it collapses. So we’re trying to be proactive as well with regards to the state of emergency.”
She said northern communities need a plan to improve physician and nurse recruitment. She also said the province’s Bill 124 should be repealed. The bill caps the wage increases of provincial employees, like nurses and teachers, at one per cent per year.
Linklater said she has been in discussions with Indigenous Services Canada Minister Patty Hajdu’s office to arrange for a meeting to address the health crisis in the communities she represents.
The Ontario Ministry of Health will also meet with both parties to help find solutions to the staffing crisis.
“Our government understands there are unique health-care challenges in the north and in First Nations communities,” Ministry of Health spokesperson W.D. Lighthall said in an email to CBC News.
“That is why we are committed to ensuring that all areas of Ontario have the health-care resources they need.”
Lighthall noted the province is investing $34 million to increase enrolment in nursing and personal support worker programs at six Indigenous Institutes across Ontario.
The province also offers tuition reimbursement to recent nursing graduates from rural and remote communities who work in an eligible underserved community.
On physician recruitment, Lighthall said the province announced in March that it would add 160 undergraduate and 295 postgraduate seats for medical students over the next five years.
NOSM University, which has campuses in Sudbury and Thunder Bay, will receive 30 undergraduate seats and 41 postgraduate positions in that time.
In an email to CBC on Thursday morning, the Ministry of Indigenous Services said ensuring health services are available to residents remains a top priority.
Hajdu spoke with Linklater on Wednesday about the challenges facing the community, a spokesperson said.The pair discussed possible short- and long-term solutions for the current staffing shortages.
“Indigenous Services Canada is working tirelessly to ensure nursing stations remain operational and providing essential care to the communities they serve, while more broadly addressing the challenges of recruitment and retention of health human resources in remote and isolated First Nations,” the ministry said.