British Columbia has launched a strategy to prevent, screen and diagnose cancer among Indigenous people, with an aim to increase survival rates.
Annette Morgan, president of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, said systemic racism prevents Indigenous cancer patients from seeking care, which delays diagnosis.
She said the province has 25 friendship centres and they are often the first place where Indigenous people seek health-care support and get advocacy from employees who have been trained to provide culturally safe services.
"For decades, we have been working on the front lines of health care, urging our clients to seek medical attention, going with them to their appointments and making sure they get the help they need," she told a news conference Tuesday.
An Indigenous strategy must be a "two-way street" that goes beyond prevention and screening, said Morgan, whose organization is one of three that provided First Nations' perspective as part of the new cancer strategy.
"Health-care workers have the responsibility to change their behaviour and make services safe for us so we are not avoiding health services altogether," she said. "We urge health-care providers to come to our centres, to come see what we do, to drop in and volunteer and get to get to know us."
The strategy also includes perspectives from the First Nations Health Authority and Metis Nation BC as they partner with the Health Ministry, the BC Cancer Agency and the Provincial Health Services Authority.
A recent study by the BC Cancer Agency suggested Indigenous people in the province have an overall lower rate of most cancers but are more likely to die from the disease.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said developing relationships between Indigenous communities and the health-care system will be key to prevention, such as a healthy diet, and ongoing care.
British Columbia is the second jurisdiction in the country to provide an Indigenous cancer strategy after Ontario, and the programs are in keeping with recommendations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
In October, the University of British Columbia began requiring future doctors and other health-care providers to learn about Canada's colonial legacy to better relate to Indigenous patients.
Joe Gallagher, chief executive officer of the First Nations Health Authority, said Indigenous people share a history of colonization and their experience with the health system isn't always in their best interest.
Gallagher, whose father died of lung cancer within a week of being diagnosed in 2005, said fear of cancer had held him back from discussing the disease with anyone until then. His mother also died of cancer and Gallagher has battled the disease himself.
It's time Indigenous people began openly dealing with the impact of cancer on their health, he said.
The First Nations Health Authority and the University of B.C. created a faculty position in March to improve cancer care outcomes and overall wellness among Indigenous people. Recruitment for the position is underway.
"As these things come together we're going to be empowering ourselves as First Nations and Indigenous people to really look at this issue of cancer and demystify these fears that we have in front of us," Gallagher said.