Federal government’s words feel like a ‘smokescreen’, say WAHA officials

Crumbling Northern medical facility new hospital campus not in the federal budget for 2024

new hospital campus

Chief Peter Wesley addresses the federal government at the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa on Monday. "Canada, where are you ?" Photo: Kerry Slack/APTN.

Staff and Weeneebayko Area Health Authority officials are urging the federal government to keep up their end of the deal on a new hospital campus for northern Ontario.

“What the Minister (Minister of Indigenous Services), is saying feels like a smokescreen,” said Elizabeth McCarthy, communications spokesperson for the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, (WAHA).  “We have had numerous meetings. They have detailed estimates. They signed an agreement. They’re not caught off guard.”

Lack of money in the 2024- 2025 budget brought leaders from seven communities in northern Ontario to Ottawa on Monday.

After cabinet on Tuesday, the Minister of Indigenous Services, Patty Hajdu, said the federal government is supporting health in northern Ontario.

“We have supported Ontario with billions of dollars of transfers to improve health for all Ontarians, and we’ll continue to help them in meeting those responsibilities. My team is working closely with Ontario right now to ensure that the hospital gets filled.

“Indigenous people in Ontario deserve the same quality of care as everyone else.”

In addition, in a statement to APTN, Indigenous Services Canada said healthcare services are the responsibility of the provincial government, and they are doing what they can to speed up funds to keep WAHA afloat.

“Canada has also been providing $12 million per year to support the hospital’s operations since 2011. Additionally, we already committed $158.4 million to support the redevelopment project.

“We are currently accelerating investments to maintain services at the existing location. This ensures people in the region receive the care they need while we work to support partners in building the new hospital campus,” said Carolane Gratton, Communications Coordinator for Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.

The words sound good, but the money is not there.

However, McCarthy explained that the current complaint from WAHA is that the money from Ottawa isn’t coming through.

“From my understanding, those transfer payments (from the federal government), don’t go towards any capital planning,” said McCarthy. “I would reiterate that we have a 2007-signed agreement that states in Section 6.6 that the federal government would contribute 45 per cent of capital costs for a new hospital campus.”

WAHA staff and leadership were supported by First Nations leaders as they spoke to the Assembly of First Nations.

“Our presence here today signifies our unwavering dedication to the well-being of our people, echoing the voices of our ancestors who fought tirelessly for justice and sovereignty,” said Grand Chief Leo Friday of the Mushkegowuk Council, an organization representing seven First Nations in northern Ontario.

“As Treaty People, we are here to ensure that promises made are promises kept, for the health and dignity of our communities.”

Weeneebayko General Hospital in need of completely new facilities.

WAHA staff and leadership said their medical facilities are crumbling and community members are being sent out to southern cities for medical services.

Crumbling facilities are forcing patients to travel long distances for medical care

Dr. Elaine Innes, the chief of staff with WAHA, said the Weeneebayko General Hospital, (WGH) serves five coastal communities on the James Bay coast, but it struggles to provide specialty services.

“For example, we can no longer provide obstetrical care because we don’t have the health human resources, which means that the furthest community, which is Peawanuk, they have to leave their community and fly all the way to Kingston so that they can have a baby,” she said.

“This service should be available in our own hospital, in our own community.”

New hospital campus
The dire condition of Weeneebayko General Hospital has patients travelling as far as Kingston, Ontario, for medical services. Photo courtesy: Assembly of First Nations

Lynne Innes said the 75-year-old WGH has surpassed its intended lifespan.

“They (the federal government), made a commitment and they need to fulfill it. We’ve been a good partner. The provincial ministry has been a good partner. The feds need to show up and fulfill their commitment,” said Innes.

In 2007, the federal government signed the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority Integration Framework Agreement. Included in the campus are a hostel, staff housing, an Elder care centre, a new hospital and an acute care centre.

The new hospital campus on Moose Factory Island would replace the crumbling Weeneebayko Hospital, originally built as a tuberculosis facility in the 1950s.

On Apr. 23, WAHA received confirmation that money for the construction of a new campus wasn’t in the current budget.

According to WAHA, the projected amount needed from Ottawa is more than $1 billion.

Eight years ago, APTN reported an ongoing health crisis in remote communities. The same issue was reported, a shortage of medical services. Since that time, the state of disrepair has only gotten worse.

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According to Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, WAHA provides vital services to some of the most underserved First Nations in the country.

“Its infrastructure is long been in need of replacement,” he said. “The silence (from the federal government), speaks volumes and we simply cannot wait any longer. Our federal Treaty partner must honour its obligations and confirm funding for this project today.”

Chief Peter Wesley from the Moose Cree First Nation said Canada has an obligation to the First Nations of Treaty Nine and wishes people could see the hospital for themselves.

“After 75 years, Weeneebayko General Hospital is so run down it cannot deliver the quality of care Omushkego people need. It is a health risk, not a place to heal,” said Wesley.

“You have my formal invitation as Chief of Moose Cree to come to Moose Factory and see this hospital and the deplorable condition that it is in. This would not be tolerated in any other urban community. This would not be tolerated in Ottawa.

“Canada, where are you?” he said.

Lynn Innes said that by prolonging the funding for the new facility, the government is jeopardizing the future of the project.

“We have a leaky roof; the structure is crumbling and the boiler system is broken. By 2030, there will be no functioning hospital.”

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