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Health agency had lost support of aboriginals, ministry says

Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, one of the founding members of the National Aboriginal Health Organization.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Health Canada cut funding to the National Aboriginal Health Organization because the research group no longer had the support of major aboriginal groups and had become dysfunctional, a spokesman says.

"Historically, NAHO has done some important work, but aboriginal organizations themselves no longer want to be part of it," said Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. "The minister recognized that this wasn't working."

He said the view expressed in media reports – and in The Globe and Mail in particular – that the Conservative government is not interested in research about aboriginal health concerns, is untrue and unfair.

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Mr. Outhouse noted that $30-million has been earmarked for aboriginal health research by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

NAHO, by comparison, has a budget of $4.9-million and only part of that went to research.

The group was founded in 2000 with a goal of providing a common research base and health programs for Canada's diverse aboriginal populations. NAHO's role was the "advancement and promotion of health and well-being of all First Nations, Inuit and Métis individuals, families and communities," but the various groups never worked in concert. Instead, each group operated a separate centre that focused exclusively on their communities.

Three of NAHO's founding members – the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Métis National Council – were all stoic when asked about the organization's closure. They had, in fact, advised the minister that they were pulling out of NAHO and wanted the funds allocated to their individual centres.

Mary Simon, president of the ITK, said Tuesday that she "encouraged a restructuring of NAHO to better reflect a distinction-based approach sought by Inuit" and other organizations held that a similar position.

To date, Health Canada has refused to fund the three separate research organizations – the First Nations Centre, Inuit Tuttarvingat and the Métis Centre.

Ms. Simon said that "creates a serious void in Inuit health research."

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Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was not available for comment Tuesday. But a spokeswoman pointed to resolutions from its annual congress that state the AFN objects to NAHO's "pan-Aboriginal" structure and feels that "on-going governance issues" make it dysfunctional and irreparably so.

There are two other core members of NAHO, the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, and they were supportive of collaboration.

Betty Ann Lavallée, national chief of the CAP, said Tuesday that the death of NAHO caught her by surprise and she is trying to figure herself what that will mean for her members. (CAP represents urban natives.) Trevor Eggleton, assistant manager of communications at NAHO, said that before the group officially shuts down on June 30, it will try to find a home for its cache of research somewhere in a university or research institute.

NAHO is widely seen as having the best collection of aboriginal health research in the world. It also has a collection of rare video and audio tapes of aboriginal elders and publishes the Journal of Aboriginal Health.

In the recent federal budget funding to Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada was cut by more than $200-million a year, which the government hopes to trim to eliminate waste and duplication.

Mr. Outhouse said one of Ottawa's priorities will be maintaining front-line services in aboriginal communities.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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