OTTAWA—There are four nurses currently working in northern Manitoba’s Pimicikamak Cree Nation.
Sometimes they work through the night, Chief David Monias says, only to return again in the pre-dawn hours of the morning to conduct rapid COVID-19 tests, administer shots and address whatever emergencies they can.
There should be at least three times that number, Monias told the Star, to care for more than 8,500 people and their complex medical needs.
His community, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the province, has appealed to the federal government for extra help. But labour shortages across the country have limited what can be done.
While staffing shortfalls like these have delayed access to critical health-care services in many parts of the country, the effects are more keenly felt in First Nation communities that are already under-resourced, Monias said.
“It feels like it keeps getting worse,” he said, reflecting on a pandemic that has seen his community grapple with overcrowding and a lack of isolation space for sick family members.
Monias is only just recovering from contracting COVID-19 himself, after someone with the virus visited his home to fix his community’s long-standing problems with running water.
More than 75 per cent of First Nations in the province now have active cases, with several communities moving to reinstate lockdowns and travel restrictions.
The rise in Omicron-driven case counts on Thursday prompted Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu to heed calls from Manitoba chiefs to streamline “cumbersome” request processes for federal aid.
“This virus is capitalizing on the major inequalities that have existed in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities for generations,” Hajdu told reporters.
“But as minister of indigenous services and as the federal government, we also need to work with partners to work faster on addressing long-standing gaps that create a foothold for illnesses like COVID-19. Housing, water, infrastructure, health-care capacity — these are all areas that we must continue to urgently address for the better health of all Indigenous peoples in Canada.”
It’s a message the federal government has relayed since the onset of the pandemic, making it all the more dismaying that First Nations are still facing disproportionate impacts from the crisis, Monias said.
“You would think that after almost two years…of working on fighting against this virus, that the government would have made some systemic changes.”
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Tension between those calling for support and Ottawa’s efforts to help hard-hit communities were thrown into sharp relief this week, as the country stares down a peak of the current wave.
On Wednesday, Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin of Ontario’s Bearskin Lake First Nation criticized the federal government’s “minimal” response to a COVID-19 outbreak that infected half of his members.
He said that the situation is an example of what he called the “dishonesty and neglect” First Nations have been experiencing from the Canadian government for a long time.
A day later, Hajdu said she was “frustrated” by the situation, saying she has maintained open lines of communication and citing her department’s approval for funding to send supplies, personnel and Canadian Rangers to the region.
That same day in Nunavut, Health Minister John Main admitted the territory had paused vaccinations in several communities owing to staff shortages — a move he called a “big concern” in light of surging cases.
“I look at other jurisdictions such as Quebec where there have been additional human resource assistance delivered to that jurisdiction, particularly for vaccination. And as it sits today, on the human resource front, we’re still waiting for a response from our federal partners,” Main said.
Hajdu and other health officials told reporters that they were not aware of such a request. On Saturday, the Public Safety department told the Star the request was approved late Friday.
Part of the problem is that some Indigenous communities require advanced practice nurses, who need specific training and clinical experience, says Melanie MacKinnon, head of the Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing at the University of Manitoba.
Frustrations are also set off by the fact that many of the gaps facing communities during the pandemic are systemic, like chronic concerns over how service delivery is implemented.
“Certainly the federal government has been a significant funder for some of these additional health activities and supports…we’ve observed that no one system could have done this work on their own,” said MacKinnon, who also co-leads the Manitoba First Nations pandemic response and coordination team.
“Moving forward, we just need to continue to build on that momentum of collaboration as well as the need to modernize and invest in more comprehensive health-care services closer to home. And I would not want to lose the opportunity…for improvements to the system that are well overdue.”
With files from the Canadian Press
Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel
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