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First Nations seek urgent action on ‘deplorable’ health conditions

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day attends a news conference at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on September 9. 2015. Indigenous leaders are pushing Canada to confront "deplorable" health conditions for their people as federal, territorial and provincial ministers prepare to meet in Vancouver next week to work on a new health accord.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Indigenous leaders are pushing Canada to confront "deplorable" health conditions for their people as federal, territorial and provincial ministers prepare to meet in Vancouver next week to work on a new health accord.

Isadore Day, Ontario regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations and head of the assembly's health committee, said the state of aboriginal health is a crisis that must be confronted by all Canadians.

In a letter to federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, Day also emphasized the need for full native participation in drafting a new health accord.

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"I think it is really important for everyone to look at the truth," Day said in an interview.

"We are in the era of truth and reconciliation and I think that this is a major issue. If it wasn't for the Indian Act, if it wasn't for residential schools, if it wasn't for colonial policy, the health conditions of our people wouldn't be in this state."

Aboriginal Peoples continue to face serious health challenges, including high rates of chronic and contagious diseases and shorter life expectancies, according to Health Canada data.

Tuberculosis infection rates, for example, are five times higher among First Nations people and 50 times higher among the Inuit population, than among the general population, the department said.

It also said an estimated 278 new HIV infections occurred in the aboriginal population in 2014, representing 10.8 per cent of all new infections that year.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Philpott said there are a number of other worrying health indicators, such as suicide rates among Inuit youth.

"These are very serious concerns," she said.

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"They are an absolute priority for me to address, but I can't do that alone because obviously provincial and territorial governments are also implicated in addressing some of these concerns. So we will be all talking together and seeing how we can make progress in terms of those gaps."

In his letter to Philpott, Day noted the minister is attuned to the First Nations health crisis "having spent so many years practising medicine in very similar, Third-World conditions of West Africa."

Aboriginal people often endure health conditions that people would not and should not expect to see in Canada, Philpott said.

"I think that you will find that they are, in some cases, comparable to the kind of levels you would see in less-resourced countries and that is not acceptable," she said.

"It is something we very much aim to address."

Indigenous leaders will be part of the talks on the health accord, Philpott added, though she did not have specifics on what shape this will take.

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"I am in discussions with indigenous leaders across the country about the best way for us to all work together, provinces, territories, the federal government and indigenous leaders," she said.

Manitoba Health Minister Sharon Blady said she appreciates Philpott's openness to looking at how to include indigenous voices at the table.

"I really want to be able to see where the federal minister goes with this because I know how important it is for our people and to our provincial system here," Blady said.

"Our First Peoples live in conditions that are predicated on 150-plus years of unjust colonial practices that have had implications over generations and that puts an undue health burden on them ... it also puts a burden on the health-care system. It is an unfair burden ... they are carrying disproportionately."

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