PM announces $700-million for native health
Monday, September 13 2004
Prime Minister Paul Martin promised to "close the gap" between the health of aboriginals and the rest of Canadians at the historic first ministers meeting Monday by offering a $700-million package for health care improvements and by proposing a future first ministers meeting focused entirely on native health.
"This [the upcoming meeting] will give the ministers of health the mandate to work with aboriginal leaders to come up with an action plan, an action plan that will lead to better health and better services to all aboriginal people," Mr. Martin said following the morning session of the special televised meeting in Ottawa.
He judged the talks a success, partly due to the "openness" of the discussion with aboriginal leaders.
Mr. Martin proposed that a blueprint on aboriginal health be drawn up by first ministers and native leaders prior to that meeting, based on several major issues discussed Monday.
They include: an improved and seamless health system, a system that is adapted to meet the needs of aboriginal people, ensuring government accountability and a focus on disease prevention. Mr. Martin asked that provincial health ministers meet with native leaders to come up with a blueprint and report back to the federal government as soon as possible.
He opened the meeting with the $700-million funding offer, saying the time has come to address the crisis in health care faced by aboriginals living in Canada's reserves and cities.
"Together, we can and we must close the gap in health status," he said.
The Prime Minister said he recognized that aboriginal health is much poorer than the health of other groups in Canada, and that native people often do not have proper access to care.
Aboriginal women in Canada have a life expectancy 14 years less of that of other women, Mr. Martin said. As well, a 2003 Statistics Canada study revealed that aboriginal adults in Canada were twice as likely as those in the rest of the country to rank their health as below average, and almost half of those living off-reserve reported chronic health problems.
Mr. Martin also said he recognized the historic relationship between the federal government and aboriginals has been wrought with anxiety.
"We are aware of the tensions and jurisdictional limits that may sometimes be rigid. We mustn't let these obstacles prevent us from presenting a health care program that responds efficiently ," Mr. Martin said in a speech at the start of the meeting.
In recognition of that, the federal government is offering a total of $700-million over the next five years to begin to improve aboriginal health, beginning with a new, aboriginal health fund worth $200-million over the next five years.
"This fund will be flexible, it will be responsive — enabling governments and communities to devise new ways to integrate and adapt existing services to better meet the needs of aboriginal people," Mr. Martin said.
Ottawa will also implement a new initiative — totalling $100-million over five years — to increase the number of aboriginal health professionals.
It is also offering a package of investments of $400-million aimed at promoting better health and disease prevention, including an expansion of the aboriginal diabetes initiative, improving resources for mothers and preventing suicide among aboriginal youth.
Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations, told the meeting that he is pleased that the federal government is recognizing the health plight faced by First Nations people, especially in light of the fact that their population is larger than five of Canada's provinces.
"The shameful conditions that confront our people on a daily basis have been acknowledged by the federal government," he said.
Mr. Fontaine made the first call to the premiers to convene a first ministers meeting focused solely on aboriginal health.
Other aboriginal leaders at the meeting said they welcomed the recognition of their needs but that more work must be done.
The Inuit leaders want the blueprint to address problems with access to service in remote communities.
Clem Chartier of the Métis Nation told the first ministers that "solutions for improving Métis health outcomes require a different approach than those required by other aboriginal peoples."
Mr. Chartier said the continuing struggle over whether Métis people fall under federal responsibility means that Métis people "fall through the cracks of Canada's health-care system."
The premiers also had a chance to speak about problems with native health in their various jurisdictions.
Manitoba Premier Gary Doer proposed that Ottawa declare a state of emergency on aboriginal diabetes in order for the federal government to deal with the prevalence of the disease.
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein backed his proposal for the diabetes strategy.
He also suggested allowing more of an emphasis on natural medicines and herbs as part of an aboriginal health strategy because they have been used by native peoples through the ages.
B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said he wanted to make sure that "we do turn our back on the failure of the past and reach for true success in the future."
He noted that in his province, health strategies have failed in three areas: drug and alcohol-related deaths, HIV/AIDS deaths and the number of children in care. And he said that the $700-million over five years would amount to only $140 a year for each of B.C.'s 170,000 aboriginals.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest said that the federal government must take more responsibility for funding for native peoples.
The most substantial portion of this week's meeting, however, will begin at 3 p.m. EDT Monday, when Canada's provincial and territorial leaders and the Prime Minister try to hammer out a health-care agreement that will improve health care "for a generation" as Mr. Martin has promised.
The Globe and Mail reported Monday that Mr. Martin is willing to give the provinces a total of $13-billion over six years along with annual 5-per-cent increases to keep up with inflation. But premiers contradicted that number, saying information from Ottawa given to them Sunday amounted to $12.2-billion.
At a press conference early Monday afternoon, Mr. Martin said that he would not discuss the figures until Wednesday, when talks on funding are schedules.
"As far as I'm concerned we will be discussing figures with the premiers but the open and transparent discussion on that front will be Wednesday.
By ALLISON DUNFIELD
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