‘We Are in a State of Shock’: First Nations Declare Health Emergency

February 25, 2016 Updated: February 25, 2016

TORONTO—First Nations leaders from northern Ontario declared a public-health emergency on Wednesday related to what they called a dire shortage of basic medical supplies and an epidemic of suicides among young people. 

The declaration—essentially a desperate plea for help—calls for urgent action from the federal and provincial governments to address a crisis they said has resulted in needless suffering and deaths.

“We are in a state of shock,” Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon of the Mushkegowuk Council said wiping away tears. “When is enough? It is sad. Waiting is not an option any more. We have to do something.”

The declaration calls on governments to respond within 90 days by, among other things, meeting with First Nation leaders and coming up with a detailed intervention plan that includes ensuring communities have access to safe, clean drinking water.

At a news conference at a downtown Toronto hotel, the leaders screened a video of Norman Shewaybick, whose wife died last fall shortly after going into respiratory distress in their remote community in Webequie. As the desperate husband held her hand, the nursing station in the community ran out of the oxygen that might have saved her life.

“We hear stories like this almost on a daily basis,” said Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which has 35,000 members in 49 communities across the northern Ontario.

First Nations communities are rife with diseases such as hepatitis C and diabetes, are short on medical supplies and basic diagnostic equipment, and have a serious substance-abuse problem, the leaders said.

What’s clear, they said, is that federal and provincial health policies have failed them, resulting in a substandard level of health care mainstream Canada would never tolerate.

From The Canadian Press