‘Lives are at stake’: Nursing shortage leads to state of emergency in PCN

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

Despite opening a new health-care centre last fall, a northern Manitoba community is facing an “overwhelming” health-care crisis and is turning patients away because of a severe lack of nurses.

“We are at a breaking point. Lives are at stake, and the health and well-being of our community members are in jeopardy,” Pimicikamak Cree Nation (PCN) band councillor and councillor responsible for health in PCN Donnie Mckay said.

On Friday, officials with PCN, a remote northern community of about 6,200 on-reserve members that is also commonly referred to as Cross Lake, held a media conference where they announced they were declaring a “state of emergency” over health care in the community.

In October, the community held a grand opening for their new Howard Halcrow Health Centre, a 60,000-square-foot complex intended to house an emergency department, ambulatory care clinic, diagnostic imaging, and several community health programs.

According to PCN officials, the facility is supposed to run with a total of 13.5 certified nurses but currently has four.

Mckay said that lack of staff has led to an “overwhelming burden on the existing health care system” in PCN, and said the community’s nursing station is closed for all non-emergency services, “leaving numerous patients without access to critical medical care.”

“This dire situation poses an immediate threat to the lives of residents, and urgent action is needed to address this health-care crisis,” Mckay said.

PCN Chief David Monias places blame on both the federal and provincial governments.

“Shockingly, Health Canada has not shown progress in staffing the facility or making it functional, and Manitoba Health has failed to allocate funds for medical services or staffing,” Monias said.

Monias added he is also frustrated with the federal government because they have not taken the necessary steps to make the facility “fully operational.”

“We urgently call upon Health Canada, Manitoba Health, and all relevant authorities to intervene immediately, allocate the necessary resources, and address the critical health-care needs of our community,” Monias said.

The Howard Halcrow Health Centre opened to much fanfare last fall, as officials, including Monias and then Premier-designate Wab Kinew took part in a grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the facility on Oct. 11.

The centre was built through a partnership between the feds and PCN, and Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) is the government agency responsible for nursing in First Nations.

“Supporting the health workforce in Pimicikamak Cree Nation to ensure high-quality, culturally safe, accessible, and effective health services are provided during this emergency is a priority for Indigenous Services Canada,” an ISC spokesperson said in a Tuesday email.

“The health workforce in Canada has been facing significant challenges, and we are working extensively with all impacted communities to find a solution.”

The spokesperson added there are currently nursing shortages at 21 nursing facilities run by ISC in Indigenous communities in Manitoba.

“ISC is having ongoing discussions with communities affected by nursing shortages in Manitoba and is using all its resources to identify immediate and viable solutions,” the spokesperson said.

Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara said in an email that the province is already looking for ways to assist PCN, but added the federal government needs to get involved if more long-term solutions are going to be found.

“All Manitobans deserve to get the care they need, where and when they need it. We have taken immediate measures to ensure that nurses from other jurisdictions can provide care to Cross Lake residents without barriers,” Asagwara said.

“We have also reached out to Cross Lake and the federal government, who is responsible for delivering care on reserves, to see how our government can better support them.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.