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Burnell Place offers safe stay to patients from remote First Nations in Manitoba

February 5, 2024
A First Nations woman and a First Nations man stand and share a laugh in an office.
Staff at Burnell Place are all Indigenous and most of them speak Ojibwe, Cree, Oji-Cree or Salteaux, which can help guests from remote First Nations who aren’t familiar with Winnipeg. Mary Bear, left, says she often speaks to doctors, nurses and pharmacists on behalf of her clients. (Warren Kay/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: A recently opened lodge in Winnipeg’s West End is offering First Nations people who’ve come to the city for medical services a family-oriented alternative to staying in hotels.

Burnell Place opened last October in the former Kivalliq Inuit Centre building on Burnell Street.

Many First Nations people come to Winnipeg for medical services that aren’t available in their communities, such as surgery or dialysis. Burnell Place is designed so families can stay together and relatives can visit from out of town.

Each room has its own bathroom, a couch and dining room set, and kitchenettes are being installed. A cafeteria serves hot meals and food to go for those spending the day in appointments.

Burnell Place also offers spaces to gather, laundry rooms on every floor and security around the clock. It is the third facility in Winnipeg opened by the Cormorant Group, which owns and operates similar locations on Sherbrook and Keewatin streets.

A young First Nations couple sit at a lunch table with a baby in a bassinet.
Burnell Place is designed to help families from remote and northern First Nations stay together as they visit Winnipeg for medical services not available in their communities. (Warren Kay/CBC)

General manager Gwen Flett says she and a partner started the business because of what happened to her as a young patient from St. Theresa Point, in a big city for the first time.

“My first experience was, ‘Oh wow, this is so amazing! We don’t have that,'” she said, her eyes widening as she recounted her early days in Winnipeg.   “Later on, you start feeling a little lost,” said Flett.

Her initial excitement turned into a sense of being overwhelmed. “Sometimes you just stay in your room because you don’t know what to do, or you’re scared,” she said.  “So we wanted to make it feel like people don’t have to worry about anything,” Flett said. “There are friendly faces they can go to with any problems.”

A First Nations woman is wearing a lavender sweater and smiling.
Burnell Place manager Gwen Flett says she wants guests to feel like they have nothing to worry about while they stay in Winnipeg. (Warren Kay/CBC)

The staff are all Indigenous, and most of them speak Ojibwe, Cree, Oji-Cree or Salteaux.

Mary Bear, who works at the front desk, said she helps guests navigate the city and the medical system. “I talk to the doctors, I talk to the nurses, I talk to the pharmacies,” Bear said.

She helps new patients with everything from finding the info desk at the hospital to calling a cab.

People coming from remote communities often face culture shock and language barriers, sometimes leading to confusion about their treatment and medication, Bear said. “A family came here and stayed with us and they were wondering, ‘Are we going to go home, or what’s going to take place?’ “We told them that everything is going to be OK, we’re here for you,” she said, with a gentle smile. “So it makes it a home away from home.”

A brick and wood building with a tower, snow on the ground.
Burnell Place is the third medical accommodations facility in Winnipeg opened by the Cormorant Group, which owns and operates similar locations on Sherbrook and Keewatin Streets. (Warren Kay/CBC)

In an email, Indigenous Services Canada told CBC it’s open to working with First Nations on more culturally appropriate lodging, like Burnell Place, for people hundreds of kilometres from home who have mostly had to stay in hotels.

Better facilities are sorely needed, said Chief Angela Levasseur of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, north of Thompson. “When it comes to honouring our treaty right to health, they try to cheap out as much as possible,” said Levasseur.

ISC said it either reimburses First Nations patients up to $130 a day, or they can choose from a list of 31 establishments in Winnipeg that offer direct billing.  The ISC list includes another 21 places to stay in smaller cities: Brandon, Dauphin, Flin Flon, Selkirk, Swan River, The Pas and Thompson.

A First Nations woman wearing a multicolour t-shirt and a beaded medallion sits in front of a large logo on the wall.
Chief Angela Levasseur of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (north of Thompson) says many First Nations patients end up staying in less desirable hotels if they don’t have a credit card to cover damage deposits. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Burnell Place is on the list, as is the Marlborough Hotel, which has gained lots of attention recently after a widely shared video showed a young First Nations woman zip-tied in the lobby, as security waited for police.

The Winnipeg Police Service said it’s investigating and the hotel is currently closed. Meanwhile, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs withdrew its business from the Marlborough because of the incident.

“There’s no consideration for the safety of our people, especially our women, our girls, our two-spirit relatives,” Levasseur said.

Levasseur stayed in Winnipeg when she had surgery, before she was chief, and she doesn’t remember being offered many choices by ISC. “It’s just, ‘Where can we save money?’ knowing full well that many of these hotels are downtown, which is dangerous. A lot of them have cockroaches, bedbugs. They’re filthy.”

Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation has its own medical receiving home for members of that First Nation staying in Winnipeg for treatment.

Levasseur said those who try to book their own hotels can face barriers. “Have you ever been to a hotel that didn’t ask for a credit card?” she asked.

The majority of NCN members rely on social assistance and don’t have access to credit, she said. “Our people are forced to stay in hotels that have either no damage deposit or low damage deposit and do not require a credit card.”

Indigenous Services said bookings are based on hotel availability. It encourages people to ask their First Nation for help finding accommodations before leaving their community. ISC’s Manitoba call centre operates 24/7 and people staying in hotels can speak with a First Nations agent if they have concerns or want to relocate, the department said.

But the federal agency won’t cover any damages, and damage deposits are between the patient and the hotel. “This is why people are forced to stay in hotels that literally put their lives at risk,” Levasseur said.

ISC said it encourages more hotels to sign on to its direct billing agreement, to offer more options to First Nations patients.

What is lodging like for medical patients from remote First Nations? 5 hours ago, Duration 4:44

Some First Nations leaders say people can face barriers and need more culturally appropriate accommodations.

Click on the following link to view the video:


Emily Brass

Emily Brass is a journalist and anchor at CBC Manitoba, and host of the podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. She’s also worked for CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John’s, Victoria and London, UK.