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First Nations leaders call for better health services on reserves

‘We’re Albertans too’

By Karen Kleiss, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON - First Nations health leaders say the provincial government can reduce the number of aboriginal children dying in the child welfare system by improving health-care services on Alberta reserves.

On-reserve health care is funded by the federal government, but advocates say the provision of health-care services to Alberta’s most vulnerable children should not be undermined by inter-jurisdictional wrangling.

“The number of aboriginal children in care, and aboriginal children dying in care, is simply too high to be acceptable in Alberta, one of the richest places on earth,” said Peyasu Wuttunee, co-ordinator of the Health Co-Management Secretariat in Edmonton, an organization of aboriginal health-care providers that implements the 1996 health co-management agreement Alberta First Nations signed with the federal government in 1996.

“There is no quick fix, but we can do better, and it starts with improving the on-reserve health system in this province, which currently lags far behind the health system offered in the rest of Alberta.”

A recent report commissioned by the province revealed aboriginal children made up 68 per cent of the children who died in provincial care between 1999 and 2012.

The report, prepared by the Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research, shows aboriginal teens and children under five died at twice the rate of non-aboriginal children the same age.

“We can’t change this outcome without significant provincial participation — the province needs to be at the table in a formal way,” Wuttunee said. “If you have a population that’s not well, it’s going to use more resources — part of this is prevention. You get in front of it, rather than respond to the poor outcomes.”

Front-line providers say there are too many gaps in health-care delivery on reserves.

“There are absolutely no services from Alberta Health and Wellness because there is this perceived jurisdictional issue,” said Randy Littlechild, CEO of Maskwacis Health Services, which delivers health care to more than 15,000 members of the four bands in Maskwacis.

“We do have a pediatrician, but it’s only by a stroke of luck that this pediatrician comes here once every two weeks,” he said. “Each child that is apprehended should have a complete medical examination by a pediatrician; they should also be examined by a psychologist — we don’t have those.”

Littlechild believes all Albertans are entitled to the same level of health care. “We’re Albertans too,” he said.

Health Minister Fred Horne said the province is working to improve health outcomes on Alberta’s reserves by partnering with aboriginal leaders.

“The state of health care for First Nations leaves very much to be desired,” Horne said. “In Alberta we take the position that everyone who lives here is an Albertan and I would certainly agree there is a need to improve services for First Nations people, regardless of where they live.”

Horne said the government will continue to talk about funding and what needs to be done at a pan-Canadian level, but he is not going to wait for those solutions.

“It is the responsibility of the federal government, that’s their constitutional responsibility, and we certainly hope and expect that they meet that responsibility,” Horne said. “But in terms of how we develop health care in Alberta, there are ways that we can partner with First Nations to improve care to both people that live on reserve and off-reserve.”

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