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Chief Michael Yellowback of Manto Sipi Cree Nation stands with NDP MP Niki Ashton and Chief Jordna Hill of Shamattawa First Nation, as he speaks during a news conference calling on the federal government to address a health-care worker shortage that has lead to deaths in Manto Sipi Cree Nation, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on April 3.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

First Nations leaders in Manitoba are calling on Ottawa to immediately address short staffing at nursing stations in remote First Nations communities, describing the health care crisis as one of government neglect and racism.

Over the past two months, every federally run nursing station in Manitoba and Ontario has “experienced reduced capacity due to staffing shortages,” the government said in recent response to an order paper question from NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents a sprawling riding that encompasses northern Manitoba.

The federal government has recently been operating these stations with only two-thirds of the nurses that are required, the response shows. Most federally operated nursing stations are located in Ontario and Manitoba.

Manto Sipi Cree Nation Chief Michael Yellowback, speaking at a press conference in Ottawa on Monday, said two members of his northern Manitoba community have died in the past nine months after seeking care from their nursing station: a 37-year-old mother of five and 48-year-old man, neither of whom he named. The two people did not receive adequate medical attention, he said.

“We’re living in third-world conditions,” said Mr. Yellowback, whose fly-in community is located about 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg, accessible either by winter road or by air. “How would you feel if you went to our community, went to our nursing station – only to be given Tylenol?”

Like other issues remote First Nations communities are dealing with, concerns over health care access are not new – nor are attempts to fix the problem. Last summer, Indigenous Services Canada boosted its efforts to recruit and retain nurses to work in remote communities. A few days later, Kashechewan First Nation, a fly-in community on the James Bay coast in Ontario, raised the alarm that its nursing station – which it said was typically staffed by nine nurses – had dwindled to just three.

Nursing shortages are far from limited to remote First Nations, however. Nurses across the country have been feeling the effects of burnout, inflated nurse-to-patient ratios, and escalating workloads, with many leaving or considering leaving the profession. And nursing shortages led to a series of emergency room shut-downs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In communities served by a nursing station, it acts for most people as their gateway for accessing health care, including, typically, to speak with a doctor. And it’s where determinations are made over when – and whether – to medically evacuate a patient out to a hospital or health care facility, often hundreds of kilometres away.

And for many community members, making the choice, on one’s own, to travel south to seek care is often out of reach.

“Eighty per cent of our community members are on fixed income. They don’t have that luxury to get up on a plane and fly out,” Mr. Yellowback said, noting that a flight to Winnipeg costs around $1,000.

Manto Sipi’s nursing station is supposed to have three nurses, but they currently have two, Mr. Yellowback said. He said the nursing station was almost shut down a few weeks ago, because the only nurse present was set to fly out before another would arrive by air. A new nurse was, instead, driven in by winter road from a nearby community.

The community’s nurses are stressed by these conditions, he said, adding, “our community members are stressed, too.” As an added concern, he noted, a doctor is needed in Manto Sipi more than every two weeks – as is the current schedule.

According to Indigenous Services’ order paper response, the department requires 223 nurses to fully staff its nursing stations. In recent months, on average, these 223 positions were staffed by 71 publicly employed nurses. The remaining 152 roles were filled by 79 contracted agency nurses, with 43 nursing positions unstaffed, the department said.

Indigenous Services did not provide a response in time for publication.

Ms. Ashton, the MP who requested the figures, said at Monday’s press conference that remote, fly-in First Nations in northern Manitoba are facing a “humanitarian crisis” – and one that’s getting worse.

“We are talking about a lack of service and support in a way that it’s never been seen before,” she said. The MP also noted that health care providers are reporting burnout and are overwhelmed.

Late last month, Keewatin Tribal Council, which represents 11 northern Manitoba First Nations, declared a state of emergency over a lack of adequate services, including health care.

Asked about the short staffing, Keewatin Tribal Council Grand Chief Walter Wastesicoot said Monday that the possibility of legal action is being explored. He said that this was a “work in progress,” however, and did not offer further detail.

He added that Indigenous Services has reached out since the state of emergency was declared, but no substantial measures have been taken to address the crises.

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