Kapuskasing's health care system is too strained to welcome evacuees from James Bay, says hospital

The director of Sensenbrenner Hospital France Dallaire says it would be “completely inappropriate and irresponsible” to host evacuees in Kapuskasing as the regional health care system struggles to meet the needs of local residents.

Kashechewan begins precautionary evacuations Friday, says co-ordinating agency ISN-Maskwa

People leaving an airplane.
Kashechewan residents evacuate their flood-prone James Bay community almost every spring as the ice breaks up on the Albany River. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)

The hospital in one of the communities meant to host the evacuees from Kashechewan First Nation says it doesn't have the capacity to welcome those fleeing the annual spring flooding risk this year. 

Kapuskasing has been a host community for James Bay evacuees for almost two decades. 

But the CEO of the local Sensenbrenner Hospital, France Dallaire, says it would be "completely inappropriate and irresponsible" to host them this year "in light of the unprecedented crisis situation [the] local health care system is currently navigating."

She says that in the past, the arrival of evacuees has increased pressure in the emergency room departments, and demand for diagnostic services also soared.

Dallaire says the evacuees destined for Kapuskasing should "be redirected to a location that is in a position to offer the health-care services these individuals expect and deserve."

Indigenous-led emergency services agency ISN-Maskwa has been hired to co-ordinate the evacuation of Kashechewan First Nation, which is located on a flood plain of the Albany River.

A row of boats is parked on a beach on a winding river, with houses up on a hill
Kashechewan is located on the Albany River. (Gaius Wesley/Facebook)

Joseph Sayers , the agency's general manager, says precautionary evacuations will begin on Friday, starting with the most vulnerable members of the community. 

Approximately 400 people are expected to be a part of that first wave of evacuations, including elders, children and those with medical needs.

Sayers says community members will be sent to one of the five communities on the host list, depending on their preferences.

Most residents of Kashechewan First Nation plan to stay on the James Bay coast, retreating to trap lines and camps out on the land to wait out the threat of the flood, according to Sayers.

In the plans it submitted to provincial authorities, ISN-Maskwa says it could evacuate up to 1,200 people to Timmins, Kapuskasing, Val Rita, Smooth Rock Falls and Kirkland Lake this year.

Waitlist that can be measured in years

Dallaire, however, says Kapuskasing is not in a position to help. She says Sensenbrenner Hospital has been experiencing important capacity issues for months, having had to transfer patients to Smooth Rock Falls and Hearst on at least three separate occasions

"These were unprecedented decisions," she wrote in a report to Ontario's Ministry of Health, detailing capacity issues in all departments, including primary care, emergency room, surgical, obstetrical, prenatal, chemotherapy, dialysis, and diagnostic services.

She adds that long-term care homes are at full capacity, with a waitlist that "is presently measured in years."

The hospital sign with a parking lot in the background
Sensenbrenner Hospital serves residents of Kapuskasing and surrounding areas. (Chris St-Pierre/Radio-Canada)

Dallaire adds there are also waitlists for mental health and addiction services. 

"We would be careless not to mention the fact that there is an ongoing crisis and to ignore the important risks and potential repercussions," she wrote.

Agency says it will bring pathways of support

Sayers says it is not yet clear how many evacuees will make their way to Kapuskasing this year. He says that local health systems are there to serve all Ontarians, including Sensenbrenner Hospital.

He adds that if the health care system cannot absorb any more people, "[ISN-Maskwa] will not be the decision maker in that respect."

According to Sayers, if Sensenbrenner demonstrates to all levels of government it does not have the resources to accommodate the evacuees, then the agency could make a case to receive funding to hire alternate health supports. 

"Some communities do bring their in-house support, whether it's health, social or otherwise. That certainly mitigates impacts on local systems," he said.

Sayers notes that the health care across northern Ontario is struggling, and says his agency focuses on minimizing impacts on host communities.

"As an indigenous-led agency, we definitely bring more pathways of support," he said.


Aya Dufour


Aya Dufour is a CBC reporter based in northern Ontario. She welcomes comments, ideas, criticism, jokes and compliments: