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Doctor Mike Kirlew has been a family physician in northern Ontario for the past 10 years. He says his patients who live in the small fly-in communities in the northernmost part of the province receive inferior health care because of problems with the system itself. (Nick Purdon/CBC ) Canadians like to think they have one of the best health care systems in the world — and that it’s there for everybody, no matter what. But Dr. Mike Kirlew, a family physician based in Sioux Lookout, Ont., and one of the few doctors who works in the remote Indigenous communities in the northernmost part of the province, says that’s not true.

"My patients do not receive anywhere close to a comparable level of care that other Canadians would enjoy. They just don’t," Dr. Kirlew says. "That’s the height of un-Canadianness."

Originally from Ottawa, Dr. Kirlew moved to Sioux Lookout, Ont., after medical school. He only expected to stay a few months — 10 years later he’s fallen in love with the North.

He says health care in Canada is supposed to be based on equality and fairness, but these days he wonders if that’s just something Canadians like to tell themselves.

"The system isn’t broken, the system is doing what it was originally designed to do," says Dr. Kirlew. "It was never meant to provide care. It was meant to deny care."

​CBC’s The National sent Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja to follow Dr. Kirlew on the job and find out how people in Ontario’s far North are being served by the health care system. Watch the feature on Dr. Kirlew on The National on Monday night

Sioux Lookout

If you want to understand health care in northern Ontario, it’s best to start in Sioux Lookout.

The town of about 5,000 is a medical hub for many of the 49 indigenous communities spread out across a swath of northern Ontario roughly the size of France.

Known collectively as the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), most of the communities are so remote they don’t have road access.

For the 45,000 people who live in the territory, the only way to get comprehensive medical care is to fly to a centre like Sioux Lookout. The town of Sioux Lookout, Ont., with around 5,000 residents, is a medical hub for many of the remote fly-in communities in the North. (Nick Purdon/CBC) After years of waiting, 36-year-old Bernice Boyce did just that this past September.

She left her home in Wapekeka, Ont., and moved 500 kilometres south to Sioux Lookout so her 14-year-old son Joshua could get the help he needs.

"We don’t have anything back home," Bernice Boyce says. "And that’s why we are here." Bernice Boyce and her 14-year-old son Joshua at the northern clinic in the Sioux Lookout hospital. Joshua Boyce is developmentally delayed and suffers from severe asthma. He’s Dr. Kirlew’s first patient of the day at the Meno Ya Win Health Centre’s northern clinic.

The doctor high-fives Joshua and asks Bernice if he is still using his puffer.

Dr. Kirlew says Joshua was unable to get regular access to occupational therapy in Wapekeka, and he struggled at school and at home.

"Can you imagine having to leave your home to be able to access basic services?," says Dr. Kirlew. "Can you imagine making that decision?" A hostel unlike any other It’s not just Bernice and Joshua Boyce who had to leave their communities to get health care. For many northern Canadians a multi-day trip is a fact of life for even a simple medical procedure or therapy session.The Jeremiah McKay Kabayshewekamik hostel is a 100-bed facility attached to the medical centre in […]

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