In the spring of 2018, then Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said she’d allocate 76 additional long-term care beds to the small northwestern Ontario town of Sioux Lookout.
Before Doug Ford was sworn into power that June, he promised to stand by that commitment. But more than five years later, those beds haven’t materialized and there’s been no news on that front.
The town — a hub for 33 surrounding First Nations, 28 of which are remote — has 5,800 permanent residents and thousands of people go there for medical appointments and social services. Now, it’s running out of room to treat and accommodate everyone.
People are growing impatient for the long-awaited expansion of the William A. George Extended Care Facility, a 21-bed long-term care home operated by the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Care Centre.
Sioux Lookout resident Aileen Urquhart took matters into her own hands this summer.
The 78-year-old staged a photo-op with her friends outside the post office in which she’s holding a shovel, to show the community is ready for the beds to be built whenever the province is ready to fund them.
“In 2018 when Mr. Ford was in Sioux Lookout on a pre-election campaign, he promised that he would bring his shovel and turn over the first sod for the long-term care facility if he got elected. Well, he’s been elected twice and he still hasn’t shown up with a shovel,” Urquhart said.
Urquhart’s shovel was passed along to Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa to be presented to Ford at Queen’s Park.
Community members will also gather at the Sioux Area Seniors Activity Centre on Saturday, pens at the ready, for a letter-writing campaign to push the government to deliver on its promise.
Project in ‘early planning stages’
CBC News requested an interview with Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Stan Cho, but was instead provided an emailed statement.
“As of November 2023, the Sioux Lookout project is in the early planning stages of development and a timeline to completion is not available,” wrote spokesperson Mark Nesbitt.
“The ministry continues to work with the operator to advance this project through the planning, construction, and opening stages in order to welcome residents to this modern, safe and comfortable home.”
The province has said it’s on track to reach its target of building 30,000 long-term care beds by 2028, though that has come with scrutiny surrounding its Fixing Long-Term Care Act.
Nesbitt did not specify how much money the province is committing to the Sioux Lookout project.
According to Jesse Bonello, communications manager of the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre, the estimated total capital cost back in 2018 was $59.5 million.
Bonello provided an emailed statement to CBC News on behalf of Dean Osmond, president and chief executive officer of the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre.
“We are continuing to have discussions with Ontario Health Northwest, and the ministries, to stress the importance of providing the additional long-term care beds that were allocated since 2018.
“Having a large number of alternate level of care patients in our hospital has impacted our ability to get acute care patients out of our emergency department and into a bed,” Bonello said. “The lack of beds has also impacted our ability to repatriate our patients back from other facilities in a timely manner, such as Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.”
A ‘shovel-ready’ project
If 21 beds weren’t enough in 2018, an additional 76 beds aren’t enough in 2023, said Janis Magnuson, a former hospital board member who’s now on the board for the Sioux Area Seniors Activity Centre.
“There really isn’t a question of whether this is needed or not. It’s a matter of how it’s going to be funded,” Magnuson said.
She added it’s important for the ministry to consider the additional costs of construction in northern Ontario, “and the uniqueness of the fact that there are a number of fly-in communities who use the beds as well.”
“We need additional funding because our needs are different from the needs of communities [in] southern Ontario.”
The wait time for a long-term care bed is estimated at six or seven years, which is putting a strain on the hospital’s emergency department and its alternate level of care beds, said Reece Van Breda, a Sioux Lookout councillor who’s part of an informal committee of concerned citizens advocating for more long-term care beds.
“This is a shovel-ready project — we just need the capital funding for the building,” Van Breda said. “Looking at the demographics of the north, this problem is just going to become worse and worse, and the backlog will just become greater and even more beds at the hospital will be taken up by people again waiting for long-term care beds.”
Van Breda hopes the letter-writing campaign will build on the recent advocacy momentum on social media to get the province to recognize the project’s urgency.
“It feels like we’re on the Titanic and we’re saying, ‘Iceberg right ahead, we’re going to hit this iceberg,’ and we’re yelling, we’re screaming … but the only one who could steer the ship to safety is Doug Ford,” he said.
Lack of political will
To MPP Sol Mamakwa, the delay in getting Sioux Lookout long-term care beds is just another chapter in a series of health-care challenges facing northern communities.
“In the north, we continue to be in a perpetual crisis — [one] crisis after another, and then we don’t have time to focus on these things,” Mamakwa said. “Those become normal when you live in those conditions on a daily basis, and they’re not normal.”
The letter-writing campaign is one way community members can come together to push for change, fight against complacency and bring better health-care to First Nations people, he said.
Mamakwa is expected to deliver the shovel from Sioux Lookout residents to Ford soon.
“We have to treat our elders [better] because they can’t just send them far away and then bring them back in a box when they die. We need them closer to home,” Mamakwa said.
“The more we work together, the stronger we become as people.”