FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: JUNE 15, 2021
Sioux Lookout, ON – Sioux Lookout area First Nations have been experiencing a dental crisis for years, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA) and Chiefs are calling for immediate action by the federal government.
For decades, the dental program serving First Nation communities in the Sioux Lookout region has been operated by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) and is based out of Sioux Lookout. During this time, many failures in the dental services provided to more than 25,000 people have been brought to SLFNHA’s attention, where much lobbying and advocacy has taken place to see improved access to dental services.
“The ISC dental program in Sioux Lookout has failed to meet the needs of communities for many years and there have been long-standing issues with dental infrastructure throughout the region” says Janet Gordon, Chief Operating Officer for SLFNHA. “The COVID-19 pandemic has now caused the program to implode after years of poor planning and lack of quality assurance or record keeping.”
Gordon explains that SLFNHA has provided ISC with many suggestions and plans for addressing these issues, including offering to take over the Sioux Lookout portion of the program.
“After many months of joint planning for a new facility in Sioux Lookout, ISC has now backtracked and informed us that they have neither the funding nor the authorities to proceed with the plans. We have wasted nearly a year of planning only to find out that ISC will not support our plan and clearly has no strategy of their own to prevent further suffering and death,” she says.
SLFNHA’s Board and Sioux Lookout Area Chiefs Council on Health (CCOH) have written letters, addressing this issue, to various politicians including Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu; and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. No response has been received.
SLFNHA was made aware of a community member who has died because of dental infections, leading to sepsis and complications, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This death was preventable. Had the infections been treated properly, sepsis would not have occurred. Sepsis is a life-threatening condition requiring immediate treatment,” says Dr Terri Farrell, Medical Director for SLFNHA. “The death of this patient was preventable and related to the appalling lack of dental services for the communities served by SLFNHA. As we speak, hundreds of children continue to suffer as the waitlist for pediatric dental surgery grows. Children are in pain, and many are becoming malnourished due to an inability to eat.”
A 2016 Child Health Status Report by SLFNHA indicates that oral health surgery rates for Sioux Lookout area First Nations are 14 times higher than the provincial average.
“The loss of life due to dental complications in a first-world country is evidence of discrimination and negligence, our communities continue to be denied basic human rights,” says Chief Donny Morris of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation and co-chair of the CCOH. “Adults and children are suffering while ISC has no plan.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario (RCDSO) set new infection control standards for dental clinics to reduce the spread of COVID-19. While dental clinics across the country have made modifications to their clinic space and resumed services, the ISC dental program has failed do so.
Additionally, SLFNHA has been made aware that ISC will not be reopening the dental clinic in Sioux Lookout, as it was determined that the building is an unsafe workplace due to longstanding structural issues. The poor infrastructure extends into the First Nations communities as well. Due to building conditions, dentists are often limited in the types of procedures they can perform. As a result, only urgent cases are being seen. The majority of treatments are limited to extractions as dentists are often unable to provide basic dental care such as fillings.
“We are now well into the second year of this pandemic, the majority of the clinics in the communities served by SLFNHA are receiving very limited services or they have shut down entirely,” explains Gordon. “In addition to inoperable community dental clinics, the ISC-run Sioux Lookout dental facility will not be reopened and alternate sites are not being supported.”
At this time, SLFNHA and CCOH are calling on ISC and the federal government to reconsider and support SLFNHA to open a dental clinic in Sioux Lookout and to commit to improve the dental program’s infrastructure, record keeping and services within the First Nation communities.