All eyes were on Chisasibi October 7 as Cree leaders and provincial ministers made two major announcements of great significance for the future of health care in Eeyou Istchee. The Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) alongside the Cree Nation Government celebrated the funding of the territory’s first regional hospital and health centre, expected to begin receiving patients in Chisasibi by late 2025.
Quebec Health and Social Services Minister Danielle McCann and Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours confirmed $300 million in funding as part of a new five-year agreement that will vastly expand health services throughout all communities in Eeyou Istchee.
“This agreement marks another important step in implementing the health and social services provided for in our treaty,” stated Grand Chief Abel Bosum. “The Cree Nation is taking increasing charge of our health and social services and bringing them home to our communities.”
Besides the new regional health centre, the new funding framework provides more than $300 million over five years for other health and social facilities across the territory, including birthing centres, seniors’ centres, respite resources for Elders and mental health resources. Another $60 million will further develop culturally safe specialist services while $44 million is allocated to information technology improvements.
“This agreement will ensure a coordinated and integrated approach to providing health and social services to each and every Cree community,” McCann explained at the signing ceremony. “In addition to fostering a more autonomous Cree Nation, developing these local services will gradually eliminate the need for locals to travel south for care.”
CBHSSJB Chairperson Bella Petawabano said she was surprised to receive everything they had asked for and expressed gratitude to all involved for establishing such a complex funding arrangement within the year the Coalition Avenir Québec has formed the provincial government.
“This is a momentous day in Cree Health Board history and an occasion to celebrate for all of Eeyou Istchee,” said Petawabano. “Among the many benefits of this agreement, it will enhance our ability to improve and support our peoples’ physical and mental health by improving access to front-line services. Instead of having to travel long hours, our people will receive the best possible care in their own cultural environment and among friends and families.”
She said three new Elders homes will be constructed, with intermediate and respite care provided in all nine communities. Instead of having to leave home to access special care, professionals specializing in areas such as heart, oncology and mental health will now visit the various communities to see patients.
Additional Community Miyupimaatisiiun Centres (CMC) offering front-line services and community healthcare will be built in Waskaganish, Ouje-Bougoumou and Whapmagoostui, along with increased lodging for employees. Birthing services will also be expanded from Chisasibi to include Waskaganish and Mistissini.
“Births that are not high risk will now happen in Eeyou Istchee, which is another great landmark in the history of the Cree Health Board,” Petawabano enthused. “I’m one who was born on the land, but younger people now have to go south. Now they’re coming home, having their babies in Eeyou Istchee.”
The hub of these new medical services will be Chisasibi’s forthcoming hospital, which promises to be seven times the size of the current facility. It will house 52 beds, improved telehealth capabilities and a full range of previously unavailable services such as surgery, chemotherapy, CT scans, gynecology and obstetrics, dental care, mental health and addictions treatment, and sleeping disorder diagnosis.
Many of these healthcare priorities were identified in the Cree Health Board’s 2016-2021 Strategic Regional Plan, defined by clients and entities at a 2016 general assembly in Waskaganish. This community consultation also prompted the recent launch of a home hemodialysis pilot project in Waswanipi, which should begin to be implemented in other communities in six months.
The plan noted the critical need for modern infrastructure to support growing northern communities and their increasing numbers of visitors. Chisasibi’s current hospital dates back to the Cree Health Board’s founding in 1978 and is showing the strain of 40 winters. There are insufficient short-term beds, a lack of family medicine services and several community health services are housed in nearby trailers.
The new 20,000 square-metre facility will combine a CMC with a hospital serving all of Eeyou Istchee. Facilities will include two operating rooms, laboratories, ambulatory resources and even a proposed after-death viewing room – everything a modern hospital should offer while integrating traditional Cree healing practices. It will be centrally located with easy access to medical evacuation routes.
“The Regional Health Centre will be a big facility, but it is not just about steel and concrete,” said Bosum. “First and foremost, it’s about people – responding to the human needs of the Crees through human care. But the new facility is concrete in a sense: it gives concrete expression to the vision in Section 14 of the JBNQA of bringing health and social services home to Eeyou Istchee.”
Bosum added that it’s also a real indication of the mutual trust growing through the Nation-to-Nation partnership with Quebec and the province’s increasing recognition of the Cree Health Board’s capacity to manage such significant capital projects. He believes the next challenge will be to match Cree skills and capacities with the tremendous opportunities presented during both the project’s construction and operational phases.
“We need our young people to become trained professionals, doctors and nurses,” asserted Petawabano. “They understand the culture, they speak the language and they know the environment. It’s very exciting, and I wish I were 40 years younger.”
Petawabano explained that 70% of current employees within the CBHSSJB are Cree but the remainder are necessary professionals from outside the territory. She said that 14 new medical specialists will be immediately recruited to begin expanding services in the old hospital, preparing for a smooth transition to the new facility.
“We must work together now more than ever to move forward according to a common vision and to build the capacity in the communities to step into the many great jobs and opportunities that will come,” said Petawabano, “I’ve been looking forward to this day and we’ve all worked hard to make this a reality.”