The Commonwealth hosts a multitude of countries that each face unique challenges. Some Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and Canada, are comprised of many people of varying backgrounds, including Aboriginals, that interplay to create a distinctive society and culture. In Canada, we pride ourselves on being a nation of multiculturalism and acceptance. However, a history of neglect to both the health and well-being of our Aboriginal inhabitants signifies a lack of mutual respect.
In Canada, governmental jurisdiction over various policy areas is determined by the Constitution. For healthcare, the Canada Health Act sets provisions that provinces and territories must meet in order to receive transfer payments, which are allocated for the administration and delivery of health services. Whereas, the federal government has jurisdiction over public health and the health of Aboriginals, the provinces and territories are responsible for administration and delivery of health services.
Problems arise when responsibility becomes blurred as a result of jurisdictional boundaries. Looking at a non-healthcare example, while the federal government is the crown entity responsible for drinking water on reserves, clean water is the jurisdiction of provinces and territories. Therefore the federal government, through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, is responsible for funding drinking water infrastructure and provides funding for 80% of operations and maintenance of water and wastewater systems with the resulting 20% being the responsibility of First Nations communities. First Nations are responsible for operating the systems, but sometimes enter agreement with third parties, such as the Ontario Clean Water Agency in the province of Ontario, to help them operate/maintain the system. As a result of these complexities, some Aboriginal reserves are left without access to clean drinking water, as of May 31st, 2015, there were 127 Drinking Water Advisories in effect in 88 First Nation communities across Canada, excluding British Columbia.
While access to clean drinking water is a staple for good health and well-being, for some, it may be seen as too distant when analyzing health. An example directly in healthcare is hospitals. Hospitals are the first point of care for many individuals who face a health emergency, including Aboriginals. However, high prevalence of alcohol use among Aboriginal communities has resulted in many individuals being neglected and not receiving appropriate care. A pertinent case is that of Brian Sinclair, an Aboriginal man who died after waiting in the emergency room, as staff assumed his vomiting was a result of intoxication from alcohol use, rather than the reality of his body going into shock. It has been suggested that the assumption he was intoxicated was made on the basis of his race. Whereas, if he was white, he would have received adequate care, ultimately preventing his death, as he died from a routine bladder infection that was treatable.
Facing barriers to good health and well-being both: ‘indirectly’ through a lack of access to clean drinking water and ‘directly’ through discrimination in the hospital setting, Aboriginals are at a disadvantage in their health and well-being. This disadvantage becomes apparent upon examination of life expectancy rates. While the total Canadian population is expected to live to 79 and 83 for men and women respectively in 2017, Inuit are expected to live until 64 and 73 while the Métis and First Nations populations are expected to live until 73-74 and 78-80, for men and women respectively in 2017. This stark difference is alarming.
What is even more alarming, is that while this may seem like a neglected population group, those with intersectionalities are further affected. For example, Aboriginal women face higher rates of violence, homicides, and disappearances than other Canadian women. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has recently reported that the Canadian government has failed to act and is urging for a national inquiry in Canada.
With various red flags and calls to action, we, as a nation, are failing to respect our Aboriginal inhabitants, by failing to listen to their voices and neglecting their health and well-being. Canada needs to recognize previous wrongdoings as a nation and work towards collaboration with Aboriginals to improve their health and well-being to meet the Canadian standard. As a multicultural nation, we must look beyond the past, while not forgetting it, to forge a new way; a way of the future.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.