December 8, 2023

Health-care workers in Sioux Lookout, Ont., hope a new hostel will ease the pressures of overcrowding among people travelling to the community for medical care.

Thousands of people from remote First Nations in northwestern Ontario go hundreds of kilometres from their home communities to Sioux Lookout for care at the Meno Ya Win Health Centre, which is the closest hospital, despite requiring a plane ride or a trip on an ice road to get there.

Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA) serves 33 First Nations across the region. Of those, 28 are considered remote, without highway access.

SLFNHA provides accommodations for people staying in Sioux Lookout while accessing care. But since the start of this year, the organization has been unable to house an average of 1,222 clients a month, forcing people to stay in hotels as far away as Dryden, Ignace and Lac Seul. Sioux Lookout’s permanent population is around 5,800, according to the 2021 census.

“The communities that we’re talking about, all they have is nursing stations. They have no hospitals, no long-term care homes, no pharmacies, no health-access centres — nothing. So they have to leave their homes to access health services in Sioux Lookout, Winnipeg and Thunder Bay,” said James Morris, SLFNHA’s president and chief executive officer.

“When they’re in Sioux Lookout accessing services, they need a place to stay, and that’s where accommodation comes in.”

That’s why the health authority bought a third hostel to accommodate people travelling to the town for medical appointments.

“It’s going to ease the pressure on finding accommodations,” said Morris.

The communities that we’re talking about, all they have is nursing stations. They have no hospitals, no long-term care homes, no pharmacies, no health access centres — nothing.– James Morris, president and CEO of SLFNHA

SLFNHA owns two other hostels:

  • The 100-bed Jeremiah McKay Kabayshewekamik, which opened in 2011.
  • The 120-bed Jeremiah McKay Kabayshewekamik II, which opened in 2019.

The third hostel, which has yet to be named, is expected to open this month, providing an additional 89 beds.

“This was a dire issue as our clients are sick, elderly, children, have restricted mobility, cancer clients and [have] a wide range of other health issues. Our staff, as well as myself, constantly felt the pressure of this situation,” said Sandra Linklater, SLFNHA’s director of client services, in a media release issued Tuesday.

The 2022-2023 year brought in 83,296 overnight stays, confirmed Karen Costello, associate director of SLFNHA’s administration client services department. Nearly 82 per cent of those stays were in the two hostels, with the remaining 18 per cent in hotels.

More people travelling for long-term stays

People are typically referred by health-care professionals in their home communities to come to Sioux Lookout for medical appointments, surgery or prenatal care. 

Registered First Nations people and recognized Inuit people can receive coverage through the federal government’s Non-Insured Health Benefits Medical Transportation Program for transportation and accommodation.

As for getting into one of SLFNHA’s hostels, it’s first come, first served, said Morris.

“At any given day, we have about 330 clients in Sioux Lookout at one time. Even with the three hostels, we don’t have enough beds to accommodate all the people coming to Sioux Lookout at certain times of the year,” he said.

A typical medical trip used to take about three days: the first day to travel to Sioux Lookout, the second day to attend appointments, and the third day to travel home.

But in recent years, more people have been coming for long-term stays, such as pregnant people, people receiving dialysis, and people with visual impairments, who are permitted to stay in the hostels for months and in some cases, more than a year, Morris said.

“All those long-term stays cut down on the number of people that we are able to accommodate for short periods of time.”

Health-care challenges in First Nations

Beyond capacity issues to accommodate people, though, are the reasons why they need medical care.

Studies have shown that chronic conditions and disabilities are more prevalent among Indigenous people than non-Indigenous people. These challenges were exacerbated through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conditions in remote First Nations — such as the quality of housing and food, and access to safe drinking water — contribute to the health-care problems Sioux Lookout’s clients are experiencing, said Morris. Common health-care concerns he sees among clients include diabetes, circulatory conditions and mental illness.

The next step, Morris said, is to improve access to health care for people living in remote First Nations, in the communities they live in, to create their own programs tailored to their individual needs, and remove the need to travel to Sioux Lookout in the first place.

“It really gets frustrating sometimes because we work so hard to get people fixed and renewed and then we send them back into the same environment and they just get sick all over again,” said Morris.

“If the federal government … would allow us to develop our own programs and fund them accordingly, we would do better in helping our people. In the meantime, all we can do is give them hotel rooms.”


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