By Ken Kellar
It’s been a long time coming, but last week Naicatchewenin First Nation finally celebrated the opening of their new and improved health access centre, along with a new elder space.
The First Nation held a ceremony on Thursday, October 28 where they officially opened and named the new and improved buildings where community members can go to access cutting edge health care, as well as a place for elders to spend time cooking or using a computer to access services.
Naicatchewenin First Nation chief Wayne Smith said that the buildings they had assembled to unveil have been ready in the community for some time, with community members already making use of the new medical facilities. But he said some happenings within the First Nation pushed back their plans for a ceremony.
“Because of the pandemic and restrictions and sometimes community stuff that happened, we postponed [the ceremony] a couple of times here and there,” Smith said.
“Today we’re here. We’re here and we’re going to do our ceremonies, visit the buildings and share with you what we are very proud of.”
The new medical facility is a blend of new buildings and upgrades to the existing structure. Smith shared that after meeting with elders in the community, the facilities were named the Aagimaak Medical Centre and the Aagimaak Elders Drop-in Centre, so named after the copses of ash trees that surround the facility.
“We met with our elders twice over the naming of it,” Smith explained.
“The first meeting we had they basically talked about processes. There were two types; one would be a contemporary way of doing the naming ceremony, and one would be a ceremonial way. The second meeting we came up with doing it in a contemporary way. There were a number of suggestions given by our elders, we probably had 15 elders show up for this meeting, and one of the elders spoke up and said ‘we’re surrounded by aagimaak’ and the Ojibwe translation for that is ‘ash.'”
Smith took a few moments to give the assembled crowd the history of these projects, noting it has been the work of a few years and plenty of input.
“This is the vision of the community,” Smith said.
“The elders, the health council, a lot of time and effort has gone through it. A lot of the drawings we had initially were probably printed on a napkin saying ‘this is how we’d like to see this.’ We laid it out and then we got the structural engineering done after that. With that, it took planning, a lot of work. We went through a lot of hiccups with the extensions.”
Smith noted that there was a lot of consultation done with the elders beyond just coming up with the new name.
“Our elders play a very important role in the day-to-day stuff in this community,” Smith said.
“We meet with them on a regular basis. They share what they see for improvements in the community. I thank the elders who took part and gave feedback in the process, and so we were able to come up with these names.”
Smith said the goal for their community has always been to look after their people to the best of their ability, which meant a way to provide access to health care that wouldn’t require a day trip to Fort Frances or Emo, or having to wait on the medical transport van.
“Instead of our people going to the Rainycrest Long-Term Care homes, we want to try to look after our own,” Smith said.
“That’s been a direction of our elders and community and the leadership for years. We want to try to do it and we have been doing it to an extent. It’s been a difficult process but we have committed workers that are willing and able to provide those types of services to our people.”
One improvement Smith highlighted about the new facility is a dedicated area for visiting practitioners, something the community had lacked in prior years. Another difference is now having a full-time nurse and PSW’s on staff.
“In this day and age, a lot of our medical needs of elders really get complicated,” Smith said.
“A lot of our elders are confined to wheelchairs, and instead of shipping them out to other areas, we want to try to keep them here and look after them. Is that an easy task? No, it isn’t, but it’s something we were asked to try and accomplish, and today we are able to.”
When it came to the facilities themselves, Naicatchewenin First Nation community health nurse Joanne Ogden provided an extended tour through the two new facilities, showing off the new equipment they have that she said allows her patients to have more regular access to health care, as well as more specialized equipment like a foot care machine that helps to monitor and hopefully prevent the potentially devastating effects of diabetes.
The medical centre is equipped with new examination rooms, bigger offices, a dedicated Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) space, as well as things like a dental chair for a dentist to come into the community.
As for the Elders Drop-In Centre, the room is equipped with a kitchenette, couches for relaxing, and computers for elders to access online services. The drop-in centre is also equipped with a special accessible bathtub for community members who might not be able to bathe on their own.
Ogden said the simple fact that community members can access these health care services in their own backyards with a dedicated health care team will make a world of difference.
“The community direction from the elders was to bring services here,” Ogden said.
“Currently people have always had to go elsewhere for their services. I often wonder how much nursing happened here previously to me coming. They had one person come for about two or three hours once a week, maybe, most likely every second week. I’m one person working full-time and I need to be four of me. There is so much need in the community, and when the service is here, it is hugely utilized. This whole facility is to facilitate bringing in more services, making it more helpful for the community members here.”
Ogden noted that many members of the community don’t have their own vehicles, which means they must wait for family members, friends or the medical van to access health care in other areas of the district, but the timing and availability of the van means that there is an increased potential to miss appointments.
“If we can have a nurse practitioner here, a doctor on OTN, if we can have those things happen here that’s a benefit for health,” Ogden said.
“It lowers the health care cost overall for the province, which shouldn’t be an initiative, but we all pay tax dollars, and we want them utilized most efficiently. That’s what we’re trying to do here. We want the best care for the community given close to home.”