Health

Cree chief pleads for help to end community’s wave of violence in open letter to Sask. premier, PM

Leaders in a remote Saskatchewan community are calling out for help.

They say residents in Pelican Narrows are living in fear daily because of drug-fuelled violence, stabbings, shootings and suicide, which are the result of historical injustice and geographic isolation. 

Registered nurse Sarah Van den Broeck described what it’s like to live and work in the remote Saskatchewan community, which is about 420 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, during a news conference Monday.

She says nurses are exhausted from the constant exposure to trauma, oftentimes looking after patients who are victims of gunshot wounds, attacks from machetes, hammers and knives, and domestic violence. 

“We feel like we’re sitting targets … we feel that the weapons used — the sawed-off shotguns — cause enough damage, but should a higher-calibre weapon be used for these shootings, we would be seeing murders every day,” Van den Broeck said.

“We’re trying to call for help before it comes to that.”

WATCH | Dr. John-Michael worries for staff in violent Pelican Narrow: 

‘Steep escalation’ in violence in remote Sask. community, doctor says

Dr. John-Michael Stevens, a physician who works in Pelican Narrows, says intensifying violence — and the ensuing efforts to treat people impacted — is taking away from the services he and his colleagues can provide to the community.

Van den Broeck says it’s difficult to sleep due to noise from drug houses across the street and continuous blaring. And when she and other residents manage to fall asleep, fireworks celebrating fresh batches of meth usually wake them up. 

She adds that nurses don’t feel safe going for walks, taking their dogs outside, or even standing on their decks because of stray bullets that might come their way.

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Clinic shutting down-non urgent care

John-Michael Stevens, a doctor in Pelican Narrows, said the local health clinic is no longer providing non-urgent care because staff are too busy dealing with emergencies. 

He added that fear is increasing among staff because there isn’t enough security at the clinic and the number of intoxicated patients — many of whom are using crystal meth, which could lead to them being violent and unpredictable— coming into the clinic are increasing.

“There have been instances where staff have been threatened and staff involvement has been increasing and I know there’s a mounting fear among staff of being victim to something,” Stevens said.

WATCH | Registered nurse Sarah Van den Broeck describes daily violence

Northern Sask. nurse at ‘breaking point,’ describes near daily gunshot wounds

WARNING: this video contains distressing details. Registered nurse Sarah Van den Broeck says medical staff can barely cope with shootings, stabbings, suicides and overdoses in the northern Saskatchewan village of Pelican Narrows, a community of the Peter Ballantyne First Nation.

“We wouldn’t want people to think that we’re closing down as a statement. It’s certainly for the safety of the staff and so that we can continue to provide emergency services to the community.”

Stevens has worked in Pelican Narrows for seven years and has felt safe for the majority of that time. He said gun violence started to rise in the community in mid-2022.

“Fairly recently was the first time I actually [felt unsafe], when I left the clinic to walk up to my suite, which is not a very long walk, I felt compelled to look around, ” Stevens said.

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“I really felt a strange sensation of I better just hurry because who knows there might be a bullet that’s just that flies at the wrong time in the wrong place.”

Calls for help

In an open letter to Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Chief Karen Bird called for a multi-pronged approach around enhanced community safety and mental health supports, as well as additional nurses. 

After a year of remaining in a state of emergency, Bird said that the people of Pelican Narrows, which is one of eight communities that comprise Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (PBCN), continue to feel vulnerable. 

The nation covers more than 50,000 square kilometres and has more than 12,000 members.

“We need the right tools and gear to keep our health-care heroes and everyone else safe. We need law enforcement that’s not just showing up after things go wrong but is really part of our community, keeping an eye out and keeping us safe,” Bird said.  

“We’ve reached out time and time again with plans and pleas detailed and clear, but the echoes of our cries for help have been met with silence.”

a person is wearing a feathered headdress while wearing an bright colored jacket.
Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Chief Karen Bird sent a letter to the premier and the prime minister asking for more community safety, mental health supports and nurses.  (Submitted by Matthew Hildebrandt)

On Tuesday, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health said the health centre and EMS services in Pelican Narrows are not operated by the SHA but that Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation is contracted to operate and manage the services in the community. 

“The Saskatchewan Ministry of Health and the SHA are aware of the ongoing violence within the community of Pelican Narrows and are working with [Indigenous Services Canada] and PBCN to support the community and residents in the area,” said an emailed statement to CBC.

Bird says the community is at a critical juncture that will determine its future, well-being and safety of residents.

A proposal to develop a community safety officer program in Pelican Narrows is still waiting provincial approval, but Bird says everything that’s being done toward that is being paid for by the nation, including pulling resources from other places.

“Our ancestors, our people, our future generations, they’re all watching children — waiting, hoping that this call for help gets answered,” Bird said. 

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