The global pandemic has exposed ever-present shortcomings in health outcomes among Indigenous people.
So described Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, who said now is the time to act on rectifying long-standing health inequities among 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota reserves in southern Manitoba.
The way forward, Daniels said, is to transfer financial responsibility and authority to First Nations quickly.
Daniels testified before the House of Commons standing committee on health April 21 and insisted that while there has been a pause to deal with the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to act and change the way funding to First Nations takes place.
The pandemic has exposed the poor health outcomes for Indigenous people, he said, and a memorandum of understanding in the works with the federal government must not be shunted aside. It was weeks away, he said.
"A joint study released last year by the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy demonstrated decades of poor health outcomes have resulted in a gap in life expectancy between status First Nations and all other Manitobans that now sits at 11 years," he told the Commons committee last week.
"When it comes to accessing health-care services and professionals, Indigenous peoples are the most marginalized in the country with the poorest health outcomes."
When asked about details regarding the memorandum of understanding, the SCO said The Brandon Sun could hear all about that on The Red Nation — specifically a weekly Friday night podcast created in partnership with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and the Center for Political Education.
Before the pandemic hit, in November 2019, the Southern Chiefs’ Organization held a gathering, Exercising our Treaty and Inherent Right to Health, to discuss heath transformation for Indigenous people in southern Manitoba. The discussions with the federal government are based on direction the organization received at that gathering, which is a slow-moving process, according to an email from the communications officer for the SCO, Vic Savino.
"We really haven’t had direct control. Even when they transfer authority to First Nations, we’re still managing their programs. We still do today. We’re managing poverty. That’s the challenge with our communities," Daniels said.
"Our leadership has been stuck in that — day-to-day managing poverty. Then there’s conflict that happens at a community level. You can’t provide everything because you’re underfunded. And it gets worse and worse."
Daniels said his fear is that when the economy is under pressure, as it is now, the spending priorities continue to exclude Indigenous peoples.
"We’re seeing less than one per cent — just over half of one per cent of the federal (COVID-19) allocation," Daniels said.
Indigenous peoples in Canada account for 4.9 per cent of the national population, according to the 2016 census.
"The challenge here is that the federal government, they take a huge role in decisions of financial allocations, also policy as it relates to on-reserve," Daniels said on the April 24 podcast.
"They have a great deal of a role in our communities, which is a real terrible situation. We’ve always obviously advocated against that. We’ve always pushed for direct control, community-driven strategies and solutions. We’ve been working toward what we call health transformation. What that is, is that First Nations on reserves take control of their health policy, their health institutions and the health funding envelopes."
Daniels linked the current state of affairs to the Canadian government making Indigenous peoples economically dependent by excluding them from the financial sector "for decades and decades."
"There’s a great dependence on federal transfers, and until we start to create our own resources … a lot of us are stuck on this system," said Daniels.
The Southern Chiefs Organization’s longer-term plans, beyond the MoU with the federal government, includes stretching beyond Canadian borders — internationally, to Cuba, for health-care prevention models and practitioners, and south of the border to connect with ancestral kin.
On the podcast, Daniels spoke of a visit to Cuba that took place in late February. Daniels’ and other chiefs’ hopes are that a fruitful relationship can be developed with that country, which specializes in prevention but could also provide on-reserve care. Cuba, according to a variety of reports, specializes in exporting medical care and supporting anti-colonial struggles. There’s also talk of training First Nations students to become doctors and nurses in Cuba.
With financial control, said Daniels, communities could take advantage of Cuban expertise and maximize dollars for better health outcomes.
"We’ve been working with our communities to see who is willing or who would like to move quickly to have a Cuban doctor and a nurse residing in the community," Daniels said, adding from there, the SCO can begin building a health-care authority in the region.
"And I think that if we could focus on international support to enrich and add value to that, I think that’s a that’s a good thing for us. We want to be able to do as much as we can for our communities. That’s our role ... trying to bring positive outcomes, trying to make best use of our resources, put political pressure on the province and the feds to move quicker, work with our international partners."
Daniels also said he’s a big believer in the Anishinaabe Nation, which transcends the Canada-U.S. border.
"Keeping in mind that our strength is obviously in our collectivity. We’re facing a very strong opposition in the colonial state. There’s a lot of very wealthy, sophisticated people who’ve worked to create the circumstance that we’re in right now. It’s going to take a great deal of coalition building and unity to really to really push back against that," he said.
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.