The first-ever Cree special assembly on health and social services heard an outpouring of concerns about everything from diabetes to suicide and the housing crisis. And delegates didn’t spare the Cree Health and Social Services Board from their criticisms.

Delegates came up with a list of 46 “major problems” that need greater attention, ranging from family violence to asthma caused by dust from unpaved roads.

Twenty-two of the 46 problems point directly at the Cree Health Board. They include: insensitivity to cultural issues by Health Board staff, high staff turn-over and burn-out, inexperienced staff, not enough doctors, language problems in hospitals and lack of mental-health support services.

Abel Bosum, coordinator of the assembly, said most of the Health Board’s problems stem from a grave lack of government funding. “It’s really no frills,” he said.

Bosum said delegates called on all Crees to take ownership of their health and social needs. They wanted the Grand Council of the Crees to lend its political muscle to the Health Board’s negotiations for more funding.

They also wanted a more holistic approach to health, and many said the Health Board has ignored traditional healing methods. There was recognition that community problems like poor sanitation and the housing crisis can’t be separated from the Crees’ generally poor health statistics.

James Bobbish, the Health Board’s executive director, said the underfunding is bad: “It’s not a rosy situation. I don’t think we are adequately set up resource-wise to meet the demands in the communities. I can safely say most of our workers are stressed to their limit with their caseloads.”

Bobbish said Health Board staff want change as much as anyone else since they see the problems first-hand. Bobbish and Clarence Snowboy, director of administration, toured the communities last year meeting with employees to come up with a vision statement, which got approved at the special assembly.

“Morale is quite high. I think there are a lot of employees who have been waiting to participate. They know the hardships better than anyone,” Bobbish said.

The grievances with the Health Board were highlighted by Robert Weistche, chairman of the Cree School Board. He said in a speech that the Health Board has dumped much of its responsibility for children and adults with health and social difficulties onto the School Board, which doesn’t have the money, training or personnel to handle the burden.

As an example, Weistche said the School Board must intervene in high-risk, abusive situations at home because Social Services “often provides very little assistance.” He also said Social Services has failed to help suicidal students referred for counseling.

Privately, many Health Board employees are optimistic changes are coming because of the spirit of openness created within the board in the past year. They are hopeful the board’s mostly non-Native middle management will see the assembly as a wake-up call. “As an employee it’s good for me,” said one health worker. “It’s easier for me to come and make changes.
It can really help our work.”

See p. 22 for more details.