The Ontario government is committing close to $222-million over three years to indigenous health care, an investment aimed at addressing the health crisis among First Nations in Northern Ontario.
The investment – announced Wednesday – also includes permanent funding of $104.5-million annually after the initial three years to deal with the unequal access to health care in these communities, when compared with health services in the rest of Canada.
"Ontario is leading the way nationally," Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. "We can look at the other premiers and the other health ministers to look at similar investments to close the health/economic gap that exists."
The investments – through Ontario's First Nations Health Action Plan – were outlined by Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins at a press conference in Thunder Bay.
They include increasing doctors' services by 2,641 days for 28 First Nations communities in the Sioux Lookout region, according to a background document accompanying his announcement; fresh fruit and vegetables for about 13,000 more indigenous children in northern and remote communities; more hospital beds for seniors; and crisis support, such as trauma response teams, youth programs and mental health workers, which are so important in communities that have suffered from suicides of young people.
The plan addresses cultural sensitivities and provides "cultural competency" training for front-line health care providers and administrators. It also provides more support for diabetes prevention and improvements to access for home and community care services, including on reserve.
The money is targeted to four key areas – primary care, public health and health promotion, seniors' care and hospital services, and life promotion and crisis support.
Dr. Hoskins characterized the investment as one that is not only addressing health care but also "justice and fairness."
"It's not up to First Nations to right the wrongs of colonization," Dr. Hoskins said. "Government must invest in meaningful and lasting solutions so communities can heal and have hope."
His government's plan is in response to the public health emergency declared last February by First Nations leaders in Northern Ontario after diseases that can be either prevented or effectively treated – such as strep throat and rheumatic fever – were killing children in the remote communities.
Dr. Hoskins met with the leaders then, and promised an action plan. However, not long after that, a state of emergency was declared in Attawapiskat after a number of young people died by suicide. Dr. Hoskins flew into the community, which added even more urgency to the situation, according to a government official.
He went directly to Premier Kathleen Wynne, urging that something be done. She agreed. The result is the funding and plan released Wednesday.
"My job as health minister is to ensure that every person in Ontario has equal access to high-quality, culturally appropriate health care, no matter where they live or who they are, and right now, in this province, that is not the case," Dr. Hoskins said at the press conference.
Mr. Bellegarde said Ontario is "breaking down the jurisdictional barrier and recognizing this is really in the best interests of everyone by investing in proper health care." Historically, he said, provinces would not get involved, saying they have no jurisdiction for on reserve health care – which is a federal responsibility.
"That's strong leadership from the Ontario government," Mr. Bellegarde said.
However, First Nations leaders who attended the announcement emphasized their wish to be represented at the table to determine how the funding and programs should be implemented.
"We want to be involved in how this is all rolled out. We need to ensure that the funds that are being announced here today, in fact reach our communities," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.
The federal government has also pledged significant funds to improve conditions for indigenous peoples – $8.4-billion in this year's budget.
"All governments are getting that they have to collectively work together to close the gap [between Canada and its indigenous peoples] … and it really is in the best interests of Canada as a country when this gap starts to close," Mr. Bellegarde said.