Responding to the Northern Nursing Crisis and Providing Remote Communities with the Care They Deserve
Dealing with medical emergencies around the clock while working in substandard conditions. Facing frequent power cuts and living in temporary accommodation, thousands of miles from home. Not having reliable internet access to keep in touch with loved ones.
It’s probably not how you imagine the job of a typical member of the public service. But for nurses providing care to northern and remote Indigenous communities, this is their reality.
As President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Eabametoong First Nation (Fort Hope) and Sandy Lake First Nation to hear firsthand some of the hundreds of nurses who serve the remote Indigenous communities our union represents.
They told me that they had been asked to go all out in chronically understaffed nursing stations. They told me about the huge physical and mental impact it had. They told me that COVID only made it worse, but they weren’t offered the same pandemic pay as their provincial counterparts.
When I asked a nurse when was the last time her workplace was full, she didn’t think it had happened more than twice in the past year. But they said that was the only time their workload actually felt manageable.
The reality is that while these federal nurses provide care in the most difficult of circumstances, rural and remote Indigenous communities are not getting the health care they deserve.
A vicious cycle of understaffing has contributed to burnout and more vacancies. In 2021 alone, the federal government spent tens of millions of dollars contracting temporary private nursing services to Indigenous Services Canada as a band-aid for retention and recruitment.
Not only does this deprive patients in these communities of the consistency and quality of care they deserve, but it also opens the door to further privatization of our health care system. This crisis will not be resolved until we properly invest in fully funded and permanent public sector solutions.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called on governments « to recognize and implement the rights of Indigenous peoples to health care as defined in international law, constitutional law and treaties. » But the conditions I witnessed clearly show that the federal government is not living up to its obligations. This shows how we are not as far removed from Canada’s colonial past as we would like to believe.
The government must present a comprehensive and urgent plan that meets the needs of people in Canada’s North and addresses the health care crisis facing these communities. It starts with the federal government giving health care workers who provide care to this population the support and resources they need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
This is what the people living in these communities and the professionals who care for them deserve.