Aboriginal Leaders Meet with Ministers on Health Care

By Lloyd Dolha

Leaders of Canada’s top aboriginal organizations met with the prime minister and other government members in a three-hour plenary session before the First Minister’s meeting on health care on September 13, 2004, in Ottawa.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine tabled a six point First Nations Health action plan with the prime minister, the premiers and territorial leaders.

“This morning’s session was an important opportunity to bring focus to the devastating health status of First Nations peoples,” said the national chief. “That is why we presented a comprehensive action plan that includes six elements aimed at transformative change and immediate results.

“Our plan is supported by the pillars of sustainability and integration to create a system that gives us maximum return on our investments and works to improve the lives of our people and a health care system for all Canadians.”

The six points of the action plan involve a sustainable financial base; integrated primary and continuing care; human health resources; public health infrastructure; healing and wellness; and, information and resource capacity.

The prime minister responded with a pledge of $700 million in new health care programs for Canada’s aboriginal people, which was warmly received by aboriginal leaders.

Martin called the meeting a “historic opportunity” to improve the health of aboriginal people who suffer from greater illness and shorter life spans than other Canadians.

The gap between the health of aboriginal people and other Canadians “is a huge moral issue for us as Canadians,” said the prime minister.

“Together we can and we must close the gap in health status,” said Martin.

The five-year federal health plan for aboriginal people includes:

” $200 million for an Aboriginal Health Transition Fund that allows governments and First Nations’ communities to adapt existing health care services to the needs of aboriginal peoples and improves the level of coordination between federal, provincial, territorial and First Nations governments;

” $100 million for an aboriginal human health resources strategy to better train aboriginal health care workers and attract and retain professionals to serve in smaller, remote communities;

” And $400 million directed to critical areas such as mental health programs to reduce youth suicides, maternity education programs, infant wellness clinics and diabetes.

The prime minister further stated that he wants aboriginal people to play a greater role in the delivery of health care services, and committed his government to adopt a reasonable rate of growth for First Nations health care systems.

“We must envision a system in which aboriginal people have an increased role in capacity in the management, in the planning, and in the delivery of health services,” said Martin. “I believe this vision can become a reality, but it will require a major effort from each of us to work together.”

AFN national chief Phil Fontaine said the funding is a “positive beginning” that demonstrates the real commitment First Nations were looking for.

“This commitment to sustainability is critical for us. Sustainability is the anchor for all the improvements that must be made in the future,” said Fontaine. “First Nations must be directly involved with the federal government in determining a reasonable rate of growth based on accurate demographic and real costs.”

The national chief further stated that the day’s three-hour session out of a three-day meeting was “clearly not enough;” and that First Nations were still expecting a full seat at the table in order to make real progress.

Fontaine also called for a full First Minister’s conference on aboriginal issues within the next six months. The prime minister and the first ministers agreed to hold a special meeting on aboriginal issues, but did not specify a timetable.

“It’s clear from the tone of what was said here today that the solutions lie with greater control by First Nations,” said Fontaine.

Still, if Fontaine was not entirely happy with the brevity of the meeting, others were.

Clement Chartier, president of the Métis National Council said the Métis made a “historic breakthrough” with their inclusion in the federal aboriginal health blueprint.

“For the Métis nation, we believe that this is an important first step towards addressing the discrimination our people currently face in Canada’s health care system. We embrace the opportunity to work with Canada and the provinces from Ontario westward in a new era of partnership in the area of Métis health.”

The Métis say their inclusion in the health blueprint is timely in light of the upcoming anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in R.v. Powley, which recognized the existence of the rights of Métis as equal to aboriginal rights.

“In light of Powley, governments must understand the Métis Nation and the courts will not accept federal and provincial policies that ignore the Métis Nation.”