Canada’s been busy these past few years. Ever since the findings and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were published in 2015, Canada has been in an era of reconciliation to mend the relationship between the government and Aboriginal peoples after a long history of cultural genocide and abuse. Since then, a new inquiry has begun to investigate all the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that have gone uninvestigated and unsolved for years. And now Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday amid cheers, protests and questions about reconciliation.
Many of these questions focus on the quality of life for Indigenous people both on and off reserves, beginning with the fulfillment of basic needs, such as health care. Many argue that inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada need to be addressed for reconciliation to become a reality, and when looking at the raw data it isn’t difficult to see why.
There are a variety of issues when it comes to Aboriginal health care, from access to quality of care to systematic inequities and individual prejudices. All of these factors play a role in worsening the overall health of the Aboriginal population, especially compared to the non-Aboriginal population of Canada. For some issues like regular access to a medical professions and care services for the elderly, the existing infrastructure is not strong enough to provide the necessary care, especially for remote and isolated communities. Other issues, like high rates of addiction and mental health problems, the services just aren’t where they are needed the most.
Access to medical care is critical when it comes to improving conditions in Aboriginal communities. This lack of access can contribute to lower life expectancy rates as well as higher mortality rates for Indigenous people, according to a report by the Health Council of Canada. Whereas life expectancy for non-Aboriginal people in Canada is 81 years, for Métis and First Nations people it’s 73-74 years and for Inuit people it’s 73 for women and a mere 64 for men. Whether it is tuberculosis, cancer or a broken arm, many Aboriginal people simply do not have proper and regular access to the necessary care. The statistics are even more bleak for Inuit people, who are often in small and remote communities, where medical care can be the most difficult to reach. Almost half of First Nations adults living on reserves surveyed in a 2009 report by the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health stated that they could not receive the care they needed because a medical professional, certain service or facility was not available to them in their area. Others said that they could not receive care because they could not afford the costs of leaving their reserve to seek such care.
Medical access is not the only barrier causing the discrepancies in health between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. A report on the treatment of Aboriginal people in the health care system found that widespread racism is largely due to the history of colonization in Canada. As a result of this discrimination, many Indigenous people in need of care must formulate ways around anticipated racism before pursuing help or even avoid seeking the care they need at all. A quick Google search proves how pervasive and deep-seeded racism towards Indigenous groups really is. Many Aboriginal people who do have physical access to care have gone undiagnosed, untreated and some have even died because of dismissal from medical professionals and institutions. However, those who have been listened to, such as James Raven, advocate for the introduction of culturally-relevant health care programs and services to lessen the gap in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Culturally-safe spaces in hospitals and medical institutions could have a large effect on experiences of racism and alienation in the health care system. Culturally competent, safe or relevant programs are services provided in a given system that help professionals to work in multicultural situations and overcome discrimination by eliminating any actions that belittles or demeans an individual’s well-being and cultural identity. In the context of Aboriginal medical outcomes, culturally safe programing means creating spaces where Indigenous medical practices can also be applied. The goal is to combat racism in the health care system and encourage more Aboriginal people to seek the help they need in a space where their background and identity will not make them second-class citizens, and for some hospitals that have begun to apply these practices, patients have been confirming their importance and success.
These issues have to be discussed and addressed for any important and effective changes are to occur. The TRC has included health issues in a portion of the recommendations made to address the ongoing issues for Aboriginal people caused by past and present colonization and racist policies; However there must be some follow-through on the part of the government for any changes to be made and reconciliation to occur. It is difficult to imagine that the tumultuous relationship between the government of Canada and Indigenous people can begin to mend when there is such a gap in something as basic and essential as health between two populations within a single country. Especially so when there are clear solutions that have been outlined in countless reports. The bottom line is that it cannot be an “era of reconciliation” when such blatant discrimination is allowed to continue.