Officials working to improve health care in northern and Indigenous communities say those improvements must come not only from services that can heal people’s bodies but also from ones that can heal people’s minds.
And they are now looking at one northern town as an example of how mental health and healing services can play a role in improving the overall health of communities.
On March 9, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization that represents dozens of northern Manitoba communities and thousands of First Nations citizens in Northern Manitoba, held an online webinar to give information about the state of health care in the north, and specifically in the community of Leaf Rapids.
In Leaf Rapids, a town of about 580 residents that sits 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, the Leaf Rapids Health Centre has been forced to close its doors three times in the last two years because of what the Northern Regional Health Authority said were “ongoing and persistent” staffing shortages.
The health centre was most recently closed for an entire month before opening back up on Jan. 27.
During the March 9 webinar, Dr. Barry Lavallee, the CEO of Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin, a not-for-profit that works closely with MKO to improve health care for First Nations citizens in Manitoba, spoke about the work he and others have been doing as they look to bring improvements in health care to Leaf Rapids and other northern communities.
Lavallee said that as he and others continue to work with communities like Leaf Rapids, they are also taking steps to learn what those in the community feel they need, and to learn what services they can start providing that go beyond doctor’s offices and emergency rooms.
“If we bring you a clinic with the same structures as Winnipeg, I am not sure that is going to suit your needs completely,” Lavallee said.
He said that recently health officials have been looking to learn what “harm reduction” strategies and services including mental health and addictions services would be beneficial to communities and they are also looking to find new ways to “empower” people in the north so that they take better care of their physical and mental health.
“This is not to say you don’t need efficient emergency medicine and things like screening, but people and specifically Indigenous people are coming to the end of the pandemic, there has been a lot of harm done, so we have to work together in new ways, and not rely completely on medical systems.”
Jason Klainchar, the chief operating officer of the Churchill Health Centre, said March 9 that programs and services now being offered in the town of Churchill through the Churchill Wellness Centre are providing mental health and social inclusion supports for residents that he said are now leading to better overall health outcomes in the community.
“In 2018 we did consultations with the community so they could tell us what they wanted in their health care, it wasn’t just about looking at data and making decisions, it was about asking people what they feel they need,” Klainchar said.
He said what they were told by many residents was that the health of the community could improve if there was better access to mental health and addictions services, but also programs that allowed for social interaction and conversations among community members, and specifically among Indigenous men, a group that he said in many cases deal with poor health outcomes.
They now run programs that allow residents to take part in activities ranging from cooking lessons to wild game hunting.
Klainchar said one of the most successful programs they now run is one that sees men connect virtually and learn to cook recipes, while also getting a chance to socialize, and he said as people became more comfortable, the classes also became an opportunity for them to have conversations about mental health and other related issues.
He said the program is one of many “land-based services” they now offer that can give people “opportunities to feel good about themselves.”
“All of these programs are developed within the system, but with the needs of the community in mind,” Klainchar said.
Lavallee said as MKO and others work to improve health care in Leaf Rapids they will look at the Churchill Wellness Centre as an example of how “land-based and culturally relevant” programming can help communities, and they will continue to look for funding opportunities to bring those kinds of services to Leaf Rapids and other northern communities.
He added he plans to stay focused on bringing improvements to Leaf Rapids, because he believes the citizens there deserve the best health care that is available.
“I have a lot of hope for the citizens of Leaf Rapids, and I am going to walk with you and support you,” Lavallee said.
“Please know that we are with you, and you are not alone.”
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the government of Canada.