Metis Nation-Saskatchewan covers cancer treatment travel costs

Terri Hansen-Gardiner fought for this moment.

When she heard last week that Metis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S) will cover travel costs for its citizens receiving cancer treatments, she knew it was time. A Cree phrase came to her, “Ninanaskimon Taki-Nanaskimowak” — to be grateful for what you’re given.

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Hansen-Gardiner, who is Metis and lives in Île-à-la-Crosse, became a patient advocate when she recovered from breast cancer in 2014. Over the course of her treatment, she saw firsthand the challenges facing First Nation members and Metis citizens from the north who made costly trips south for cancer treatment. If they were on a fixed income, that challenge could heighten with no extra assistance following a diagnosis.

She soon started lobbying for what she saw as linchpin issues — the costs of travel and accommodation.

“Nobody should ever miss chemo because of travel,” she said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Metis Nation-Saskatchewan announced on July 24 that it will compensate its members for travel costs as they receive cancer treatment.

There’s already been a strong uptake, noted MN-S Health Minister Marg Friesen.

Medical travel issues among Metis members became more acute after the provincial government shuttered the Saskatchewan Transportation Company in 2017, she noted.

“People relied on the service, and now there’s no service. It’s caused a great deal of challenges,” she said, adding that MN-S will evaluate the travel program in 2022 and hopes to include other kinds of care, like dialysis treatment.

Dr. Gary Groot, a surgeon and researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, said the MN-S program is a strong step forward, but multiple barriers remain. They vary from language issues to cultural sensitivity while receiving care.

“This is good. It’s positive. It’s not enough,” he said.

Dr. Caroline Tait, a medical anthropologist at the U of S, agrees travel is an ongoing issue for Metis people. It applies most to those who live in remote and rural areas who have to travel as far as Saskatoon to receive treatment.

Part of this issue is jurisdictional, Tait said. While First Nations may cover travel costs through the federal government, Metis people may not receive the same help.

For example, a bus taking people from Montreal Lake wouldn’t be able to carry a Metis cancer patient, she said.

“Even if there’s an empty seat, they’re not allowed to use that service, because their health does not fall under that jurisdiction,” she said.

Tait recalled the story of one man who hitchhiked to Saskatoon from La Loche to receive cancer treatments. Travel costs should be the last thing on patients’ minds as they undergo treatment, she said.

Hansen-Gardiner said she thankful for the support of organizations like the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency, and she plans to continue advocating as long as she can.

“This is a very proud moment for me, because this is what I’ve been fighting for.”

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