A chief of a northern Manitoba First Nation is condemning a decade-long nursing shortage in northern and remote communities as “systemic racism.”

Michael Yellowback, Chief of Manto Sipi Cree Nation, told Canada’s National Observer that there are around two nurses on site at the nursing station for a community of around 1,000. Sometimes, due to rotations, sick leave or flight cancellations, their nursing station will be down to one nurse. Other days it will close entirely.

For example, only a couple of days ago, a young man suffering a medical emergency had to be resuscitated. But he ultimately passed away, leading to a shutdown of the nursing station so “nurses can have their rest,” said Yellowback.

“We don't have, you know, the luxury of just going to a medical facility to get treated,” he said of remote First Nations. Manto Sipi Cree Nation is more than 200 kilometres from the nearest hospital.

Yellowback points to the inequity: small towns in the south the same size as his have access to health facilities with all the bells and whistles, he explained. “And yet, when you look at the Indigenous communities, they don't have those types of things. They have doctors; we don’t.”

Currently in Manto Sipi First Nation, doctors will visit around twice a month, Yellowback said.

Screenshot of the Niki Ashton order paper question revealing operational vacancy numbers.

The healthcare crisis in remote First Nations is not isolated to Manto Sipi First Nation. In Ontario and Manitoba, provinces with a significant number of remote First Nations, nursing stations have more than a 60 per cent vacancy rate, according to an order paper question filed by MP for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski Niki Ashton’s office.

For Ashton it’s a “life and death” matter for First Nations people in her constituency.

“Indigenous Peoples have been treated like they are not part of this country, basically since 1492, the arrival of Columbus,” Yellowback said.

“I've spoken with leaders that have wondered if lives could not have been saved,” said Ashton, who is also the critic for Indigenous Services Canada. “Clearly, part of the problem is the federal government's failure to recruit and retain nurses across our region.”

"[Indigenous Services Canada] is actively recruiting qualified, experienced nurses to practice in remote and isolated First Nations communities throughout the regions," a statement from the department to Canada's National Observer said. "Part-time and full-time work is offered to front-line nurses to meet diverse employment preferences and to promote improved work-life balance."

26 new nurses are set to start work in Manitoba First Nation's by September; in Ontario, 55 nurses will by employed in First Nations around the same period, Indigenous Services Canada told Canada's National Observer.

"While we are making progress, the Department recognizes the outstanding challenges and the need for continuing efforts," the statement added.

The shortages reflect a wider shortage of healthcare practitioners that has worsened in recent years. As of March 21 this year, Manitoba First Nations have a 66 per cent vacancy rate for nurses, while those in Ontario have a 61 per cent rate. Both jurisdictions also rely heavily on part-time nurses: in Manitoba there are 10 times more nurses working part-time than in full-time positions. In Ontario, there are eight times more nurses in part-time positions than working full-time. Part of that problem, Ashton has said, is Ottawa’s reliance on part-time staffing.

Ashton’s office sent a formal letter to the Minister of Indigenous Services Canada calling for a concrete plan to fix the problem.

“Your government has acknowledged the nursing shortage, but that seems to be where it ends.

First Nations need access to nurses now,” reads the letter obtained by Canada’s National Observer.

Screenshot of the Niki Ashton order paper question revealing amount of part-time and full-time nurses in remote First Nations.

Yellowback has a vision for his community centred around a full health centre that will meet the needs and capacity of his First Nation.

Residential school trauma and the chronic underfunding of healthcare and infrastructure has left his First Nation, and others in the North, with ongoing health issues that require investments.

“Indigenous Peoples have been treated like they are not part of this country, basically since 1492, the arrival of Columbus,” Yellowback said.

And yet, Yellowback feels for the nurses themselves and acknowledges they are “overburdened” by the shortages. It’s why he calls on both the federal government and Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew for more investment.

“We don't want to be considered Manitobans [only] every four years when there's a provincial election,” he said.

Canada’s National Observer contacted Kinew’s and Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara’s office for comment but did not hear back by time of publication.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
July 8, 2024, 02:19 pm

This article was updated to reflect comment from Indigenous Services Canada.

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As you mention briefly, this is part of a serious shortage of health care providers everywhere in Canada. An estimated 22 per cent of Canadian adults (about 6.5 million people) do not have a family doctor or nurse practitioner - and that is just adults. Chronic under-funding, a rapid increase in population, perhaps the burnout cause by the pandemic....

Other than the fact a nursing shortage is a problem everywhere in Canada, surely First Nations have an ample population to educate and train their own people in the nursing field? Racism, very doubtful claim.

Every community hires local people and despite someone is trained as a doctor or nurse, you can't expect that person to want to relocate to another community if it doesn't fit their life style. The Chief needs to work with their own community to educate and train people in the roles they require.