KAMSACK, Sask. — A state of community crisis was declared March 14 by the Saulteaux Pelly Agency Chiefs Health Alliance of Keeseekoose, Cote, and Key First Nation, located a few miles north of Kamsack, Sask. At a Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) press conference, Senator Ted Quewezance explained the three First Nations have been plagued by hundreds of deaths attributed to addictions, violence, and health problems.
“We are in a crisis; we need help and we need it now,” said Cote First Nation Chief Norman Whitehawk. “Our communities are in a state of grieving.”
Quewezance criticized both federal and provincial governments for playing jurisdictional games while people die.
“During provincial elections everyone is knocking on our door for support, but when there’s not an election we’re a federal responsibility,” observed Quewezance, noting that the candidates aren’t mentioning First Nations issues, and the province has pulled away from the table for a commitment of $350,000 to a $1.1 million treatment facility the federal government has already committed to. “The health system is not only failing our people, it’s killing our people.”
He added that communities are attending three to four funerals a week, with four people dying in one day, Feb. 27, 2016, on Cote First Nation. He emphasized that this is a shared experience across Saskatchewan and Canada, and many First Nations are calling for help without receiving a response, or with promises of education rather than the primary care that the rest of the country receives.
“National harm reductions don’t help,” noted Quewezance. “Pamphlets don’t heal our people.”
In a report by Health Canada consultant Dr. John Elias, it was noted many of the addictions problems escalated with the establishment of the Kamsack methadone clinic. Quewezance agrees, along with the leadership of the three nations, attributing many of the deaths and addictions issues in the Saulteaux Pelly Agency area to the methadone program. They have requested reviews of all those involved.
“The federal and provincial government have become the pushers of drugs as they fund narcotics and opioids under the government drug plans,” said Quewezance. “They track prescription drug use and abuse, but do nothing to stop the problem.”
Vice-Chief Kimberley Jonathan emphasized the systemic barriers in place: these include medical transportation and access to basic medical needs and mental health services, as evidenced by the recent tragedy at La Loche.
“It’s systemic racism — people are literally dying,” noted Jonathan. “These are human beings and ought to be respected and given the positive support other people enjoy.”
FSIN, the chiefs, and Quewezance have requested in a letter to leadership that the governments sit down at the table until a solution is reached for providing essential primary care services on-reserve, requesting equal care, equal quality, and equal health outcomes comparable to mainstream Canadian health care in a measurable, timely, and reasonable way.
Quewezance cited racism, bias, and a lack of understanding of First Nations people within the health regions, sharing the example of his own son who died in November. Diagnosed with swelling of the brain in his second hospital stay after being transferred from Kamsack to Yorkton, he was then moved to two more urban hospitals where he was treated for liver issues before dying of meningitis.
Another example was given of a 14-year-old girl who has had difficulty entering a treatment program because no beds are available, and is on four medications, three of them heavy opiates.
“It’s time for equality,” said Quewezance. “We want the attention of the federal government, the provincial government, and the health care system. We meet with them regularly, but solutions cost money.”
Jonathan noted the ultimate goal is capacity building to end the crisis, and for the governments and leadership to help shoulder the heavy burden being paid by innocent victims. She also called for urban municipalities, cities, and the medical industries and partners to step up and end the crisis mortality rates.
“The greatest priority ought to be those who are vulnerable.”