NEWS
08/26/2016 05:02 EDT | Updated 08/27/2017 01:12 EDT

Unnecessary chaos caused in two First Nations by Health Canada memo, leader says

OTTAWA — First Nations leaders expressed dismay Thursday that two communities in northern Ontario were given less than a week's notice from Health Canada that their federally run nursing stations would be temporarily closed.

Keewaywin First Nation and Nibinamik First Nation were told in a memo dated Tuesday that the federal department was planning to put a temporary alternative medical plan in place by the end of this week.

Health Canada has since confirmed that the planned closures, originally scheduled for today and Friday, have been averted.

The government memo, dated Aug. 23, suggested the communities would have to access telemedicine — treatment and diagnosis remotely, either over the phone or via video link — at a nursing station in another community.

The short notice was unacceptable, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, noting the memo prompted unnecessary chaos and confusion on the ground.

Nishnawbe Aski is an umbrella political organization representing 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario.

"The leadership in those communities were pretty shocked to hear that this was going to happen, knowing that the delivery of health care has been an issue," Fiddler said in an interview.

Charlie Angus, an Ontario New Democrat M-P and his party's indigenous critic, said he was "gobsmacked" when he first heard about the contents of the memo.

Angus also urged Health Minister Jane Philpott to address the grave state of indigenous health.

Nishnawbe Aski declared a public health emergency in February.

"She's aware of this crisis, she knows the magnitude of the crisis, she knows lives are at stake," Angus said.

The situation is unfortunate, Philpott said in a statement Thursday.

"Services must be maintained," she said. "The department has located resources to ensure these essential services will not be interrupted."

Fiddler said earlier Thursday his organization strongly disagrees with Health Canada's use of telemedicine as a temporary solution for remote communities with shuttered nursing stations.

This approach would mean communities wouldn't have access to immediate health care, he noted.

"I just find that so unacceptable on so many levels."

A collaborative effort is imperative, Fiddler added.

"That's what we have been saying over the last year when we issued the health declaration back in February ... that First Nations need to be more involved in the delivery of health care especially in the North," he said.

"We need to transform how the health care is being delivered."

—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter