TORONTO - First Nations leaders from northern Ontario declared a public-health emergency on Wednesday related to what they called a dire shortage of basic medical supplies and an epidemic of suicides among young people.
The declaration — essentially a desperate plea for help — calls for urgent action from the federal and provincial governments to address a crisis they said has resulted in needless suffering and deaths.
"We are in a state of shock," Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon of the Mushkegowuk Council said wiping away tears. "When is enough? It is sad. Waiting is not an option any more. We have to do something."
The declaration calls on governments to respond within 90 days by, among other things, meeting with First Nation leaders and coming up with a detailed intervention plan that includes ensuring communities have access to safe, clean drinking water.
At a news conference at a downtown hotel, the leaders screened a video of Norman Shewaybick, whose wife Laura died last fall shortly after going into respiratory distress in their remote community in Webequie. As the desperate husband held her hand, the nursing station in the community ran out of the oxygen that might have saved her life.
"We hear stories like this almost on a daily basis," said Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which has 35,000 members in 49 communities across the northern Ontario.
"It's not like the government doesn't know these things."
Fiddler cited the cases of two four-year-olds who died of rheumatic fever caused by strep throat in 2014, and suicides by children as young as 10.
Governments, the leaders said, have failed to act on numerous reports about the deficiencies in health-care services, including one from the auditor general last year, and another aboriginal leaders delivered in January on the rash of suicides, the latest just last week in Moose Factory.
First Nations communities, many still dealing with the brutal after-effects of the residential school system, are rife with diseases such as hepatitis C and diabetes that should have been prevented or better treated, are short on medical supplies and basic diagnostic equipment, and have a serious substance-abuse problem, the leaders said.
What's clear, they said, is that federal and provincial health policies have failed them, resulting in a substandard level of health care mainstream Canada would never tolerate.
"We're talking about discrimination" said Isadore Day, Ontario regional chief. "We're talking about institutional racism in Canada's and Ontario's health-care system."
Day said First Nations are hoping the new Liberal government in Ottawa will finally respond after years of seeing their pleas for help fall on deaf political ears.
"We have recently come out of a decade of darkness under the previous Harper government," he said.
"As Canada and the provinces and territories look at a new health accord, they must understand... the cost of doing nothing over the last decade has had a drastic impact on the people of the North."
In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was well aware of a "tragedy" that extends beyond northern Ontario to across the country.
"We need to fix a relationship that has broken over the past decade, and indeed centuries, between Canada and indigenous peoples," Trudeau said in response to questions from New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair.
"This government has pledged a new relationship: putting real money forward to build support on infrastructure, on health, on a broad range of things, and creating a true nation-to-nation relationship."
Ontario's aboriginal affairs minister, David Zimmer, said he hoped to talk to provincial and federal health ministers as well as to Fiddler about what he called the serious problems.
"Health issues for First Nations, especially in the remote communities, are always a challenge and, in cases, are in fact emergencies," Zimmer said. "It's something that we all have to tackle. It's everybody's responsibility."