On the outside looking in: Indigenous peoples excluded from premiers’ health talks

Published in Rabble.ca | January 18, 2012 | Circulation: 200,000 unique monthly readers

United Native Nations of B.C. president Lillian George — from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in northern B.C. — and Jerry Peltier, former Grand Chief of Kanesatake Mohawk Nation

Is there a link between the tar sands pipelines, the premiers’ health conference, and Indigenous rights?

As Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders met in Victoria this week to discuss the future of health care — after the Conservative government pulled back from its medicare role — no attention has been paid to Indigenous peoples at the talks. All that came out of the meetings were strong words towards Ottawa, and plans to set up working groups on finance and “innovation.”

But rabble.ca spoke to two First Nations advocates outside the meeting who said they were outraged by the lack of Aboriginal consultation around the health-care talks.

United Native Nations of B.C. president Lillian George — from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in northern B.C. — and Jerry Peltier, former Grand Chief of Kanesatake Mohawk Nation (near Oka, Quebec), said that all levels of government failed in their obligation to consult and include Indigenous people. Especially, they argued, when it comes to health care.

Here’s their conversation with The Left Coast Post today.

DAVID BALL: It seems like, for all their talk yesterday, (the premiers) are not really taking a position challenging the federal government. What’s your response to the last couple of days here?

LILLIAN GEORGE: I’d be lying if I said I was happy with the outcome. Unfortunately, what I’m seeing here is government again doing what they choose to do, working in isolation, without involving Aboriginal people. It’s important that we have a place at the table, particularly regarding health. Health is a huge concern for all Aboriginal communities, and right now they’re not asking us any questions or seeking our input. We weren’t invited to this meeting. Yesterday, the premier mentioned Aboriginal peoples — but there’s nothing today. What I’m hoping is when they set up the health innovation working group — I’m hoping the premiers of PEI and Saskatchewan will see to it that Aboriginal organizations are at the table. But when it comes to developing health initiatives, there has to be representation from Aboriginal people across the country.

DB: What about you, Jerry?

JERRY PELTIER: I’m sort of disappointed at the media itself. I think the Aboriginal issue has been a very big issue over the last couple of months since what happened in Attawapaskat in northern Ontario, where they had to bring in the emergency Red Cross to help that community. At that time, First Nations issues were at the top of the media’s list. This gave the mainstream media the opportunity to ask questions of the premiers and the chair: Why wasn’t the Aboriginal leadership invited to this very important meeting taking place here? As for the announcement this morning — setting up a working group on innovation — there’s been no attempts made to even reach out to Aboriginal health providers, so that we can have our input into how this negotiation on health care should function… I feel disappointed that no questions were raised by mainstream media about Aboriginal issues.

DB: Why should Indigenous people be at the table? Why in particular?

JP: Well, for us, why is it important for Indigenous organizations to be at the table? Number one, health for First Nations is a treaty rights issue. And secondly, health matters affect all Aboriginal peoples, no matter which political stripe they’re on or whose turf they’re on. If you look at our situation from coast to coast to coast — the living conditions — everything is holistic, everything affects our health. Whether we live in a nice home environment, or whether we don’t. Whether we lack running water. All these issues affect our health.

LG: When we talk about the issue of health, it includes environment, employment, housing, clean drinking water, issues of Aboriginal women and children. All those are connected to health — they have a huge impact on the whole health of Aboriginal Canadians across Canada. If you look at any urban centre across Canada, you’ll find a Downtown Eastside. The Aboriginal people are homeless, they’re living on the streets, a number of them now have HIV/AIDS — they can’t go back to their home communities. What happens to them? They end up living on the streets. That really goes to show you that the Canadian health-care system as it stands right now isn’t working for Aboriginal people. There need to be changes made in the health-care system itself — the way that Aboriginal people are treated when they go to emergency rooms. I’ll give you an example: my cousin went to a hospital in Vanderhoof (B.C.) — he was out skydiving and started having chest pains. His voice got slurred, he wasn’t walking properly, and when he went to the emergency room in Vanderhoof hospital — they just assumed he was a drunk, another drunk Indian. He was having a heart attack. It’s things like that — the stigma they put on us, that we’re all low-income families, we all live on welfare, if we have a status card we get everything for nothing, everything’s free — that is the furthest thing from the truth. Mainstream society needs to understand that… We need to be working together to change the health-care system to make it acceptable. The whole lack of doctors, nurses and treatment that even I’ve seen Aboriginal people getting in hospitals is deplorable. They don’t have the cultural relevance to deal with Aboriginal people in hospitals right now. Aboriginal elders who need to go into home-care situations, there’s none available specifically for Aboriginal people. They won’t go into a regular nursing home because people there don’t understand them.

DB: These weren’t constitutional talks, but they were talking about the future of Canadian health care — between the federal and provincial governments. Do you find it surprising that you weren’t consulted? Particularly in light of the fact that previous attempts at re-balancing the federal-provincial relationship have hung on the words of Indigenous people. I’m thinking of (Manitoba MLA) Elijah Harper — this isn’t exactly a constitutional talk, but it’s about the future of health care. It’s a substantial federal issue.

LG: Government always talks about buzz-words like accountability and transparency — and yet they’ve shut the door on us. Not only on health issues, but on several other issues. That’s why Jerry and I are here — to find out what’s going on, and for people like yourself to do interviews, to let Canadians know that Aboriginal organizations weren’t invited here… We’re on the outside looking in, while they make decisions on health care that affect us.

JP: There’s only one issue: at all other talks the federal government and provincial premiers have — whether it’s on education, the economy, whatever issues that have an impact on our communities — we have to be at those tables. It took a Supreme Court ruling to force both governments and also private industry to recognize the duty to consult. The international community must understand — it’s nice for the Canadian government to say, ‘We’re having discussions with Aboriginal groups on all matters that affect the Aboriginal people of Canada.’ I think, that’s quite far from the truth. If you look at the (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), it took a while for the Canadian government to accept that. For us to move forward with what’s in those rights — and the health issue is one of those rights — it’s an important element, the premiers have to understand that. What do we do now? We’re going to consult with our national organizations, but what’s our next step? Do we continue to try to sit outside looking in as these discussions take place? Or do we take a progressive move and set up our own forums? But we’d need money to do that. Is the federal government going to fund that? I don’t think so. Will the corporations — that are taking millions and millions and millions of dollars of resources from our Aboriginal territories — fund it? I don’t think so. So we’d need to look for international funding to make it happen.

DB: You hear a lot about the health impacts people worry about with projects like the pipeline, the tar sands, the Taseko mine (on Tsilqotin First Nation territory) — all of these projects have health impacts because Indigenous peoples live downstream, often in remote areas. How do you see that relating to discussions around health?

LG: If the pipeline goes through, it’s going to go across all the territory of British Columbia. The whole northwest part of British Columbia is going to be affected. That’s where our people go to get traditional medicine. That’s all going to be gone. A part of that happened when they did all the clear-cutting in B.C. And I’m sure it’s happened across Canada as well. But the fact is that traditional medicines are what a lot of us use. If that pipeline goes through, and heaven forbid there’s a spill, it’s going to have a huge impact not only on our traditional medicines, but the whole livelihood of Aboriginal people in that whole area — to hunting and fishing. It’s not just about medicine, but about food source as well. If you don’t have proper food to eat — the government is often spouting off about healthy eating and healthy lifestyle — well, a lot of it is what we live on, our wild meats and fish. If that pipeline goes through, it will have a huge impact on where the game goes, and what happens to the fish. If anything disrupted that whole ecosystem, it would have a huge impact on Aboriginal people.

JP: I should say, we’re not against development. We’re not against creating job opportunities for Aboriginal peoples or Canadians as a whole. However, we’ve got to look at the balance. Is it going to affect our traditional way of life? If all of our traditional food source is contaminated or destroyed, and we’ve got to rely on so-called mainstream food sources which are getting very expensive, a lot of our members can’t afford that. You try to go to a healthy lifestyle using non-Aboriginal food sources, a lot of our people can’t afford it.

DB: Much like how organic food can be very much a white privilege, right?

LG: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. A small loaf of organic bread is like $7. They want us to eat healthy? Even buying whole wheat bread is expensive. I remember my mom going to the bakery and buying day-old bread because it was cheaper, and it was always white bread. We couldn’t afford brown bread (laughs). It’s things like that, little things that people take for granted every day.

DB: So you’re talking about the bigger context of health, and here they’re talking about the very basic aspect of the health-care system.

LG: They have to look at more than just the basic health-care system, because if it’s just the basic system then we wouldn’t be fighting so hard to be here. For us, it encompasses it all — it’s a holistic view of health. That’s the way we were raised, to look at everything. You can’t just fix one part of something and expect everything else to fall into place. It doesn’t work that way — you have to fix it all. That’s the one thing that we would like to see happen, and that’s one of the main reasons we’re pushing so hard to be at the table. It’s important that our voice is heard.

DB: I was reading a study on First Nations communities, in which communities that had both educated youth about traditional culture, and also been part of some kind of action or blockade to defend their lands, were healthier as a whole — there were fewer suicides and less alcoholism. What are the factors in a healthy community?

LG: Absolutely, it’s important that youth are involved. Right now, with everything about health care, you hear on the news about Ecstasy. You can buy an Ecstasy pill for $5 and now it contains a toxin that could be killing youth. Suicide is huge in Aboriginal communities across Canada. Why is that? Because there’s nothing to do, there’s no outlet for their energy. To be involved in sports is expensive. Then there are problems in the whole family structure, and that goes back to residential schools. Families didn’t know how to parent properly, because they lost that when they were taken from their communities. It’s that whole history, going back that far, as to why youth have turned out the way they are today. Even today, people have to move to an urban centre to go to school.

DB: Jerry, I have a question. You were Grand Chief of Kanesatake, right? When was that?

JP: From 1990 to 1997.

DB: So you were there for the Oka Crisis?

JP: I was the one that helped defuse the Oka Crisis. I was in there, involved in the crisis in our community.

DB: How do you see a link between healthy communities and self-determination? You experienced that first-hand.

JP: Self-determination — or what we call our sovereign rights — includes running our own health institutions, our own education institutions, and our own financial institutions. We happen to be fortunate to live in an area that is close to a major city, but at the same time far enough so that we can do our own thing the way we want to do it. But certainly, that’s one of the areas we were fighting for when Canada repatriated its constitution. We talked about self-determination and how we want to move forward, and to make sure our communities move in a way that our ancestors fought for.

DB: Do you feel that your exclusion from these meetings and others like them is an example of colonial attitudes on the government’s part?

JP: It’s always been there, and will continue to be there. That’s what I think about the Aboriginal peoples and our elders in the past — they had a lot of patience. I think it’s going to be the next generation that’s going to carry the fight. We went through this in the constitutional debates — I was involved from 1982 to 1987, I was one of the chief negotiators for the First Nations of Quebec — we knew that we can’t change this colonialist mentality overnight — we have to work at it. We’ve gotta use their court system to fight it. There’s cases we win; there’s cases we lose. But we continue to persevere.

LG: We were successful in Delgamuukw (the historic 1997 B.C. Supreme Court case recognizing Aboriginal title), on the territories that I’m from. That was a huge win for Aboriginal people, on and off reserve. Half of my family live on reserve, half live off. You know, it’s the pride we have within ourselves. I never identify myself as an Aboriginal woman. I identify myself as a member of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, the Big Frog clan, and then I’m also the president of the United Native Nations of B.C. It’s the identity that gives me the pride — for me, at least — I think that’s what’s lost for a lot of the youth now, they don’t know where they belong. Before you know where you’re going, you need to know where you come from.

JP: In fact, we just met one here this morning.

LG: Yes, we did, as a matter of fact. A young man just found out which Aboriginal nation he came from.

JP: He was one of the security guards for the premiers.

LG: He just found out what community he’s from, but he had no idea because he’d been adopted.

DB: Does that give you hope?

JP: Oh yeah! (laughs).

LG: Absolutely. In the words of Chief Dan George, ‘We endeavour to persevere.’ We will continue moving forward. Sometimes we take one step forward and three back, but we keep on going.

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