Attawapiskat Doctor on How Crisis is Affecting Women and Children
Attawapiskat Doctor on How Crisis is Affecting Women and Children
It started with the story "What if You Declared an Emergency and No One Came," in the Huffington Post, by Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus, where he railed against the failure on all levels of government to act on the deteriorating conditions in Attawapiskat, a First Nation reserve off of James Bay. As winter descends on the region, dozens of its citizens are living in crowded conditions with no electricity or running water, and despite a declaration of a State of Emergency by local leaders, there had been no action by the government for three weeks. This week, the Red Cross intervened with supplies, followed by Emergency Measures Ontario and other governmental organizations. Meanwhile, media coverage of the crisis has steadily increased, thrusting this remote Northern community into the spotlight.
Heather Ringrose is a family physician based in Moose Factory. For the past two years, she has been traveling north to Attawapiskat several times a month to serve as their doctor. We caught up with her Wednesday to get her perspective the evolving crisis, and to hear why she is hopeful for the future of northern communities.
You’re originally from the Hamilton area. Why did you bring your practice north?
I saw the posting for the James Bay Region when I was in medical school and I always wanted to come up here. As a family doctor here, you take care of a lot more than you would in the south, because we don't have access to specialists as readily as we would in the south. Family doctors take care of deliveries, the emergency room, hospital patients, long-term care patients, clinics, walk in clinics, phone calls from nurses etc.
We fly to the more remote coastal communities like Attawapiskat. The people have limited access to health services compared to the south and have a lot of social issues affecting their health. You can really make a difference with your work as a doctor here. The population is predominantly Cree, and it is wonderful to work with this group. I also love the fact that we are so isolated here. There are no paved roads and no stoplights. I walk across the street to work every day. Five minutes after work, I can be in the wilderness- hiking, running, snowshoeing, kayaking, or swimming. I like to live and work in a place where you know everyone. I grew up in a small town near Hamilton, so I don't miss the city.
What keeps you there?
The people, the medicine, and the immediate access you have to the wilderness.
There has been a ton of news coverage this week about the health and housing crisis in Attawapiskat. Is this story unique to that community in particular?
I think that other communities up the coast of James Bay have similar issues or have had them in the past. I can't speak for a lot of other communities because I come mostly to Attawapiskat. It is more isolated than my home base community, Moose Factory, and I don't find that housing is such a big concern there. I definitely notice a difference in the conditions of the houses in Attawapiskat compared to Moosonee. Other communities have had other issues in the past years. Fort Albany, for example, had some flooding in the spring at break-up. The health clinic was separated from the rest of the clinic by a large body of ice and water. For a few weeks, the only way to get to the clinic was by canoe or helicopter. In the past, other coastal communities have been relocated because of flooding.
How is the situation in Attawapiskat affecting the health of girls and women?
It is hard for new mothers to get new homes for their new families. A lot of these young women must live with relatives or extended families. Sometimes a new mother asks me to write a letter to the band to get a new house because her baby was being exposed to fumes or smoke from another house member who was using drugs.
Sometimes because of mould or inadequate heat in the home. This doesn't help because there is a 5-year waitlist for housing. It is hard for women to care for their children if they don't have running water. It is also hard for kids and teenagers to study in crowded living conditions because of the distractions from other family members. Some kids are refusing to go to school because they are ashamed of the severity of their skin rashes or allergies. >Some women have difficulty with alcohol or drug addictions and have gone for treatment, but when other people in their home are also having problems, they get drawn back into it as soon as they come home. They have nowhere else to go. Women who get pregnant at a young age have difficulty finishing school. It is hard for women who have a lot of children to come in for medical appointments. If they need to see a specialist, they have to leave the community and their families and travel overnight alone. Sometimes they can't find anyone to care for their children, so they don't go to their medical appointments, other times the weather is bad and the flights are cancelled- it can be months before they are rebooked.
It is a big effort for women to get out of the community for regular preventative health care- for things like mammograms, bone density tests, and colposcopy. When they are about to have a baby, they go to Moose Factory or Timmins for confinement. Their travel is funded but the baby's father's travel is not- so they often have to deliver without any family members present.
It feels like every time there is a news story about people living in the north, we hear about crises from unclean water to diabetes to suicide. Can we be hopeful about the future of Northern communities?
This is the sort of thing that attracts the attention of the media. There are definitely problems in the north that require a lot of work. You don't hear enough news stories about positive things: the cultural festivals and talent shows held here every summer, Project George - a program that brings kids from Moose Factory into the wilderness hunting, camping, and canoeing, for example.
We have elders and adults in the communities who bring the youth into the bush to teach them to hunt and fish. We also have some locals who become nurses and teachers and return to their communities.
We have some local artists who make beautiful moccasins, bead-work and soap stone carvings. There is a strong sense of community here and people help each other out very readily. We get to eat a lot of wild foods like fish, moose, and goose.
The issues you list are difficulties commonly seen in the north, but they are also issues in other parts of Canada. I can see a lot of potential in the communities in the north. I think we need to let our local youth see their potential and help them achieve it.
What is top of your wish list for the Attawapiskat community? What resources would make the biggest difference to the people living there?
We need to take care of our basic needs first, like healthy homes, affordable healthy food, access to good healthcare, drinkable tap water, a safe place to sleep, and meaningful activities or work to fill our days.
I would like to see funding for better housing in the short term. We know it is a problem, regardless of who is at fault. It needs to be fixed to improve the health of the community. Ideally this will translate into better health and better living conditions. This will help people to be able to focus on things like school and work training. We need to train local people to work in construction, renovations, and health care so they don't have to rely so much on temporary outsiders to do this for them.
Attawapiskat is finally getting a new school after 10 years of waiting. The students have been learning in portables and don't have access to their own gym. The new school will help. I would love to see better roads- the roads are very dusty in the summer. If you go for a walk, you are covered in clouds of dust every time a car goes by- this affects our respiratory health. I would also love to see more local role models who can do youth activities and community activities. It would be great to organize youth exchanges so that some of our kids could experience other places and bring what they learned back here. I did an exchange as a teenager and it had a huge impact on me. This will hopefully come with time, but I'd like to see funding and resources first to deal with our most basic needs.
What can Canadians do to help this community right now?
We appreciate the support of other Canadians who have read about Attawapiskat in the news. Canadians can encourage the government to send funding for new housing projects in the community. In the long-term, I would like to see funding available to train locals to build and care for new houses. The hospitals are often understaffed in terms of nurses and other health care professionals and counsellors, especially ones who will stay more than a few months. It would be wonderful to recruit more long-term health care staff. In the south, many people get to see the same nurse and doctor each time they go to their GP's office. It improves the quality of the health care delivered. Another major issue is the cost of healthy food here. Fort Albany is trying to organize Farmer's Markets to bring less expensive produce to the communities- if we could arrange something similar for Attawapiskat, it would help a lot of families to be able to access affordable healthier food.
If you are interested in donating to the Red Cross, financial donations can be made online at www.redcross.ca, by calling 1-800-418-1111 or through local Canadian Red Cross offices. Cheques should be made payable to the Canadian Red Cross, earmarked "Attawapiskat" and can also be mailed to the Canadian Red Cross, Ontario Zone, 5700 Cancross Court, Mississauga, ON, L5R 3E9.