OTTAWA — Aboriginal Peoples endure higher levels of tuberculosis, HIV and heart disease than the rest of Canada — a dramatic disparity that indigenous leaders want health ministers to confront on the road to meaningful reconciliation.
Isadore Day, Ontario regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations and head of the assembly's health committee, said First Nations, Inuit and Metis are facing a health crisis that demands to be confronted by all Canadians.
In a letter to federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, Day also emphasized the need for full participation in drafting a new health accord.
"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."
Health Canada data shows a dramatic difference in life expectancy and rates of chronic and contagious diseases for aboriginal Canadians. 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.
Health Canada also estimates there were 278 new HIV infections in the aboriginal population in 2014, representing 10.8 per cent of all new infections that year.
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 in an interview.
"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.
"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."
—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter
By Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press