At age 63, Ted Quewezance estimates he’s been to more than 400 funerals.
The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) senator and former chief of the Keeseekoose First Nation says violence, addictions and health issues have long plagued the community and contributed to a high death rate. Now, a three-year spike in deaths has prompted his community, along with the surrounding Cote and Key First Nations to declare a health crisis.
“An average Canadian citizen goes to seven to 10 funerals a year and my chiefs have been to over 50 and 60 funerals in the last year and a half,” Quewezance said at a press conference at the FSIN office Monday. “Could you imagine going to a funeral every week? Not one, but three or four.”
Cote First Nation had four deaths on Feb. 27 and chief Norman Whitehawk said the community is in a “constant state of grieving.”
Quewezance said lack of access to quality health care is the primary cause of the deaths. He hopes declaring a crisis in an open letter will prompt the Sunrise Health Region, and the federal and provincial governments to meet with the Saulteaux Pelly Agency Chiefs Health Alliance to discuss a plan of action.
“Their national harm reduction strategy has failed and pamphlets do not heal our people. It’s primary health care that’s needed,” Quewezance said.
The First Nations would like the federal government and health region to review the opening of a methadone clinic in Kamsack. The group points to a Health Canada report by Dr. John Elias that found addiction issues escalated following the opening of the clinic.
“The Federal and Provincial governments have become pushers of drugs as they fund narcotics and opioids under the government drug plan,” Quewezance said.
FSIN vice chief Kimberly Jonathan joined Quewezance by stating First Nations encounter barriers of racism and lack of access and resources.
Quewezance said they have two funeral homes in Kamsack but their community is still struggling to get a second nurse they asked for during 27 months of negotiations with governments.
The group wants front line doctors and nurses on reserve who can assess, diagnose, resuscitate and stabilize patients for transportation. Following the opening of their treatment centre, the communities want it to house a detox centre that respects First Nations culture, religion and acknowledges the trauma experienced by those who went to residential schools.
Governments respond to crisis declaration
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said Health Canada officials will continue to work with the three chiefs and the province to find out what more needs to be done to improve care in the communities.
“Our Government has made it very clear that it is taking a new approach to resolving these long standing problems and is committed to a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership,” said in a written statement to News Talk.
Health Canada currently gives $2.6 million in tax dollars to the communities for health promotion and disease prevention, including mental health, and $152,800 for HIV/AIDS work. This funding also supports the Saulteaux Healing and Wellness Centre. The federal government also gave the Yorkton Tribal Council $98,500 for a Regional Youth Suicide Working Group and $150,000 for Short Term Crisis Interventional Mental Health Counselling.
Saskatchewan Rural and Remote Minister Greg Ottenbreit admitted there is more work to be done to improve care to First Nations communities.
The biggest challenge for the province has been finding permanent staff who are willing to work practice in rural communities, Ottenbreit said, let alone within First Nations communities. The province has attempted to offer “healthy” incentives to those willing to practice in underserved areas with populations of less than 10,000 people.
“Any professional that’s needed to deliver quality and accessible health care in a rural or remote area is of a concern and priority to our government,” the minister said.
In this year’s budget, the province gave $294 million towards mental health and addiction services across the province, and the Yorkton hospital has seen wait times for mental health services decrease to within 24 hours. However, Ottenbreit said the challenge of diagnosing and treating mental illness as well as navigating the system has contributed to the ongoing problems on reserves.
Ottenbreit pointed to the All Nations’ Healing Hospital, a First Nations centered hospital in Fort Qu’Appelle, as an example to emulate across the province.
The province’s solutions, however, do not directly address the First Nations call for care on reserves.
He said a review of Kamsack’s doctors and physicians was not off the table, but that any complaints regarding physicians should be brought to the College of Physicians as an example to emulate across the province.
The Sunrise Health Region which services the three First Nations declined an interview but issued the following statement.
“Sunrise Health Region representatives and the board chairperson meet frequently with representatives of Cote, Keeseekoose and The Key First Nations to discuss health services and the health of First Nations people. Sunrise Health Region welcomes the opportunity to continue our joint discussions.”