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 and addiction crises 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 provides nurses and funding for community-based health programs, as well as transportation to Winnipeg for insured services. The department said it continues to support the Four Arrows Regional Health Authority, which provides services to the Island Lake communities, in its effort to expand provincially insured health services.
"We recognize there is more work to do in order to close the gap in access to quality health care between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples in Canada," said Randy Legault-Rankin, a spokesperson for the department.
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.
Officials from Indigenous Services Canada met with the community last month and will continue to provide supports, said Legault-Rankin.
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," said Chief Sam Knott.
The department plans to increase its counselling services in the community by sending a therapist to Red Sucker Lake for a total of 10 days this month up from eight, it said in a statement.
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.
Funding from the province's 2022 budget is set to go toward a new health-care hub to service the north, a government spokesperson said in a statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2022.