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Ojibway chief demands answers after First Nations man dies while paramedics allegedly ‘sat on the sidelines’

ojibway chief demands answers after first nations man dies while paramedics allegedly sat on the sidelines

WARNING: This story contains distressing details. 

A social services agency in Kenora, Ont., is investigating after the chief of Ojibways of Onigaming alleged paramedics waited on the outskirts of their reserve and took 10 minutes to respond to a medical emergency before a man died.

Chief Jeff Copenace told CBC News the 30-year-old died after he went into medical distress in a home on the First Nation, located about 450 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, Ont. CBC News has agreed not to name him out of respect for his family’s wishes. 

The man’s family called 911, and along with several First Nation staff, they tried to revive him by doing chest compressions while paramedics remained in the ambulance on the outskirts of the reserve, according to Copenace.

Copenace said he was in his office in the community around 10:30 a.m. Thursday when a staff member told him someone was in distress and may have died. Shortly afterwards, another staff member came and told him they were trying to revive the man, but the paramedics wouldn’t go into the community because they were waiting for police. 

“They just sat on the sidelines,” Copenace told CBC.

“It wasn’t until I started driving down the highway, and they [paramedics] saw a couple cars coming, then they started driving to the scene. I followed them and when I got to the scene, the ambulance driver jumped out of his vehicle and I said, ‘Why were you waiting? What were you doing? He’s dying.’

“The ambulance attendant said, ‘I’ve been detached here before, and we’re not supposed to enter,'” Copenace said, adding the driver told him they’d been attacked at the house before and were “waiting for protection” and for police to arrive. 

After the exchange between Copenace and the ambulance attendant, an elder pulled the chief aside to calm him down. Meanwhile, the 30-year-old man’s uncle and other community members yelled at the paramedics to come help as his condition had deteriorated. 

Copenace believes this sequence took roughly 20 minutes, from when he was first notified something was wrong until the man died. 

“I honestly believe that if this was a white young man, they would’ve tried to save his life. And because he was First Nation, and was brown and was from Onigaming, they decided just to let him die, despite the efforts of our community to save this young boy’s life,” Copenace said.

“I watched this happen in real time in front of me,” he said.

‘Full review’ being conducted

CBC News has not independently verified the details of the incident, but Copenace shared a photo that appears to show the ambulance parked on the side of the road, though it is not clear how long it had been parked there. 

A spokesperson for the Kenora District Services Board (KDSB) confirmed in an email that it was staff at Northwest EMS — which is operated by the KDSB — that took the call from the First Nation, and KDSB staff “are currently conducting a full review [of] the incident and gathering all of the information in regards to this call.”

In a tweet Thursday afternoon, Canada’s Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Marc Miller, said he spoke briefly with Copenace and called the incident “unacceptable.”

Miller added, “The family of the young man and the people of Onigaming deserve some clear answers.”

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu also tweeted that she spoke with Copenace. 

“Not being able to access urgent care is unacceptable,” she said. “We agreed federal, provincial and community leaders must work together to understand how this happened and make sure people in Onigaming can get the care they need when they need it.” 

Community members noted issues in the past

Support is being provided to the 30-year-old’s family, who are grieving the sudden loss of their loved one, Copenace said, adding his First Nation of about 800 registered members has been through a lot recently and remains in an ongoing state of emergency. 

“We just had three deaths in the past few weeks. This will be the fourth. It’s non-stop, and it just honestly feels like governments, and the health-care system and the police don’t care. That’s how we feel,” he said. 

This is not the first time Copenace and other Indigenous people in Treaty 3 have expressed concerns over the quality of care provided by medical officers working in Kenora, and Copenace addressed this issue in his speech at the Assembly of First Nations gathering this summer. 

Across Canada, the issue of systemic racism in health care involving Indigenous people has been documented in government reports, inquiries and royal commissions, indicating their concerns tend to be minimized, and they’re more likely to experience disproportionately longer wait times, inappropriate or no pain management, and medical errors .

“Our people are just going to keep dying as a result of it. That’s what I’m seeing right now,” Copenace said. “I’m not sure what it’ll take to change, except for demanding our own First Nations services, our own First Nations nurses … our own First Nations paramedics to transport our people to hospital.” 

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