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Star Blanket Cree Nation balances pandemic pressures to open new health services centre

Click to play video: 'Star Blanket Cree Nation ‘better prepared’ for pandemic'
Star Blanket Cree Nation ‘better prepared’ for pandemic
WATCH: It’s been a stressful few months for Star Blanket Cree Nation working against the pressures of the pandemic to get a new health centre up and running. On Friday, the health centre opened its doors. Roberta Bell has more on what this means for the community – Aug 14, 2020

Star Blanket Cree Nation has spent the past few months working against the coronavirus pandemic to get a new health centre up and running — all the while, the need for mental health supports has been growing.

While celebrating the grand opening of the facility on the reserve Friday, the nation’s health services director, Sharidy Desnomie, was up front about the additional stress on both the project and the people.

But Desnomie was optimistic that Star Blanket, a community of about 400 people located 120 kilometres northeast of Regina, is now well-positioned to address the challenges that lay ahead.

Read more: 60% of Indigenous people say mental health is worse due to COVID-19: survey

“We feel that we’re better prepared to provide programming to the community and addressing some of those needs around the pandemic,” she said. “In particular, I think the mental health and mental wellness of people because of the isolation or the ever-evolving changes that we all have to adapt to.”

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The plan was always to have mental health as a focus the new Kihew Kawaskasit Health Services Centre’s programming, said Star Blanket Chief Michael Starr.

Although he noted drugs and alcohol have become more prevalent in the community as pandemic circumstances took hold, the nation has grappled for years with a high suicide rate.

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The chief said that he couldn’t assign a number to the loss, but would say that recently Star Blanket has been forced to grapple with multiple tragedies, including around people who have taken their own lives.

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When it officially opens to serve Star Blanket and the surrounding communities in the next week, health centre will offer basic primary care, transportation assistance and programming around mental wellness and addictions, including a youth suicide prevention. There will also be maternal and child health and healthy child development components.

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The chief said there will a concentrated effort to promote emotional and spiritual health as well as traditional health techniques and medicines. There are plans to garden behind the building, he said, adding there is also consideration to plant raspberries and Saskatoon berries.

“I believe we can do more with our people,”  Starr said, noting other health issues, such as diabetes, are also prevalent among the reserve’s membership. “This facility brings that hope, brings that opportunity to do more. And we want to do more with our people.”

Read more: Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations working on suicide prevention bill

Star Blanket, a member of the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, has access to File Hills Health Services on the nearby Okanese First Nation. But transportation has remained a barrier.

Star Blanket had been running a smaller health operation out of its band office, but the space dedicated to that was damaged by flooding, the chief said.

About three years ago, the community began talking with what is now known as Indigenous Services Canada about taking steps toward the new $800,000 new Kihew Kawaskasit Health Services Centre.

It was on track until early 2020, when the pandemic took hold, Desnomie said. By the spring, it was difficult to get supplies and workers on site.

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With the coronavirus came other complications, she said. The community had to refocus, at least temporarily, on things like securing personal protective equipment.

Desnomie said she’s grateful the project has come to fruition.

In addition to employing about half a dozen staff locally, it will allow travelling doctors and dentists a space to practice.

“I believe it will help us heal,” said the chief.

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