Professor Jeff Reading is the interim director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the University of Toronto; Bernie Farber works on First Nations issues with Dr. Michael Dan, who endowed the Institute
Last year in Manitoba, the family of Brian Sinclair withdrew from the inquest into his death. Citing systemic racism within the health care system, the Sinclair family lost confidence that the inquiry would address the root cause of death for the aboriginal man who suffered for 34 hours in the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre Emergency room. Mr. Sinclair was referred there by a clinic for a routine procedure, a catheter change and antibiotics prescribed. Instead, his health deteriorated, despite vomiting several times and then motionless. He was never triaged or examined by medical staff until he was found dead and rigor mortis had set in.
Last month, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, released a scathing report calling on Canada to initiate a national inquiry to examine the root causes of violence against aboriginal women. Despite what has been called a 'chorus of critics' from the international community, Canada has denied any systemic violations of the rights of aboriginal women; consequently the report is quietly being dismissed.
And, recently in a small isolated northern First Nation community (population about 1,000), four young people took their lives and another four attempted suicide. In what has become almost "standard operating procedure", the Federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs refused to comment about the epidemic of suicide among vulnerable aboriginal youth.
And sadly there is much more. How is it that the infant mortality rate on aboriginal reserves is 14 deaths per 1,000 births – nearly double the national average? How can it be that life expectancy among the Inuit is 15 years shorter than the Canadian average? Can it really be possible that suicide rates among Canada's aboriginal youth are up to 11 times higher than the national average? Thanks to decisions made by the Stephen Harper's government, close to 10 aboriginal health research groups have had their funding either severely cut or totally withdrawn. This at a time when virtually every other nation with aboriginal populations (U.S., New Zealand, Australia and others) are increasing funding to indigenous health, education, training and research.
All these indigenous health initiatives have been instrumental in the past in focusing on the factors which determine Indigenous health working towards improving the lives of Canada's aboriginal people, the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population.
Dr. Thomas Dignan, chair of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeon's Aboriginal Health Advisory Committee and acting community medicine specialist for Health Canada's First Nations and Inuit Health Branch told the Canadian Medical association Journal that "the state of Aboriginal health is a national embarrassment and leadership is needed now more than ever."
It is clear that the federal government's track record when it comes to anything aboriginal is dismal at best. A determination to ignore the travesty of missing and dead aboriginal women, turning a blind eye to aboriginal youth suicide, the rejection of any real effort to equalize education opportunities for Aboriginal children flags much of what is wrong with government policy.
The real sorrow however is in the fact that the government sees absolutely nothing wrong with its miserable treatment of indigenous Canadians; and especially so when it comes to health related matters. This same government's decision to abandon the mandatory long form census not only has it hit Canadians in general with less information about our wellbeing, but lack of ongoing health data is devastating for future generations of aboriginal Canadians.
Some have argued that maintaining indigenous people in poverty and sickness is part of the calculus of doing business. With First Nations reserves in a state of perpetual crisis it effectively neutralizes their abilities to act as stewards of their traditional territories when it comes to natural resources development and even treaty negotiations.
In the end what these tragic stories and gloomy data really reveal is a collective denial of the plight of aboriginal peoples. It also points to a Canada that has become increasingly hardhearted and compassionless. When will Canadians tell the federal government to fulfill its fiduciary, legal and yes moral obligations to recognize the constitutional entrenchment of aboriginal peoples' rights and to narrow the gap in health and wellbeing for Canada's first peoples'?