Health Fitness

Nurse shortage prompts state of emergency in Pimicikamak Cree Nation

A northern Manitoba First Nation declared a state of emergency Friday afternoon, owing to a nursing shortage officials in the community described as a crisis.

Pimicikamak Cree Nation — also known as Cross Lake — is supposed to have at least 13 nurses working in its nursing station, but as of Friday, there were only four.

That means the staff who are available are experiencing burnout and a lack of sleep, while some patients are being turned away as the facility operates on an emergencies-only basis, a health official said.

“For people that don’t know Cross Lake, where we’re located, we are an isolated community and we don’t have the other services,” said Helga Hamilton, the health director for the community, which is about 550 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

“If we were in the city, if we were in Steinbach, Winkler, you can go to a walk-in clinic, you can go to all these other places to seek health-care,” she said.

“We have just the nursing station here, that’s it. We don’t have any access to any other form of health care.”

The shortage of nurses is not something that happened overnight, said Hamilton, but has now reached a point where it’s critical. 

While the centre is supposed to be staffed with at least 13 nurses, the actual number the community requires is closer to 24, said Hamilton. Working with four nurses, some of whom are pulling 24-hour shifts, is “extremely dangerous,” she said. 

“We need to find nurses where we can, as quickly as we can.”

‘Health is a human right’: chief

Pimicikamak Chief David Monias called on all levels of government to help rectify the situation. 

“It is Canada’s responsibility. They have an … obligation to our people to provide these services under the Canada Health Act, along with the province,” he said Friday.

Monias also said the First Nation needs its nurses and doctors so community members can get necessary care. 

“Health is a human right, it’s a legal right, it’s a treaty right, and we have to make sure these are fulfilled,” he said. 

Chief David Monias said all levels of government need to meet their obligations to ensure the First Nation’s members can get necessary health care. (CBC)

Hamilton also said physicians fall under the province’s jurisdiction while nurses fall under the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, which is part of Indigenous Services Canada. 

CBC News has reached out to Indigenous Services Canada and the provincial government for comment. 

Pimicikamak band Coun. Donnie McKay, who oversees the health portfolio for the band, said the community has always been short of nurses. The Cross Lake band has a registered population of more than 9,000 people, including more than 6,000 living on-reserve, according to Crown-Indigenous Relations data.

To have only four nurses for such a large population is not acceptable, said McKay, and those nurses are reaching their breaking point. 

“I just spoke with a nurse yesterday, and you can tell by the tone of her voice she’s near falling down. They’re exhausted,” he said.

“We don’t blame the nurses and they’re overtired, they’re stressed out, they cannot keep up with the clients coming into the nursing station. Things are bound to happen.”

A man sits at a desk
Pimicikamak Coun. Donnie McKay, who is responsible for the health portfolio, said the community has always been short of nurses. (Zoom)

Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said the nurses in Cross Lake aren’t part of her union, but are federally employed and part of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch.

However, she said the situation is still concerning for MNU.

“It’s actually really mirroring our provincial health-care system, everywhere you go in this province or this country, we are in a shortage,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether they work for the Feds or if they work for the provinces, we’re in a desperate nursing shortage.” 

Community keeping eye out for measles

Leadership in the First Nation is also keeping an eye out for measles cases in the community, Monias said. As of Friday, the province said no cases have been confirmed in Manitoba. 

Monias said it’s a similar situation to the COVID-19 response,when nurses came together to make sure as many community members were vaccinated as possible.

He said the community will need nurses to provide the measles vaccines for those who may need it. 

“It does scare me that it will come to our community,” he said. “The scary part is that it’s airborne, and that’s something we need to be very mindful about and very careful about.” 

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