Indigenous Communities Should Take Lesson from Alberta

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Healthcare, Joseph Quesnel

Manitoba’s Indigenous communities should learn a lesson from an Alberta First Nation that is establishing a private health clinic to provide services that will reduce the pressure on the provincial public system.

Specifically, the Alberta government has recently approved a plan by the Enoch Cree Nation, close to Edmonton, to build a private clinic specializing in hip and knee surgeries. This clinic will be a partnership between the First Nation and companies that will construct the building and provide the equipment. As with other public clinics, the surgeries completed in this clinic will be, in most cases, covered by public funds.

Before readers become upset by this proposal, private clinics are quite common across the country. These private clinics are, in fact, needed now to reduce the backlogs that exist in many surgical procedures. Like other private clinics, the Enoch clinic will be tightly controlled by the provincial health department.

As often happens in our country, any discussion of private health care gets short circuited by baseless claims of “American-style” healthcare. In fact, the evidence suggests that the U.S. was better able to respond to its healthcare needs during the COVID pandemic than Canada did.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media in Canada missed this evidence because it was, so it seems, too busy promoting the government narrative and demonizing Canadians who were unvaccinated.

During the pandemic, we clearly learned that the Canada’s healthcare system is not prepared for substantial surges in demand. The surge from the pandemic led to tens of thousands of surgeries being postponed. In fact, some patients died while waiting in a cue. The increased demand also affected healthcare workers who were under considerable stress. Medical professionals were burning out at a high rate, and many were leaving the profession.

Even so, one hopes that the Enoch experience will lead to the opening of more private healthcare clinics on First Nations. Certainly, some of Manitoba’s Indigenous communities could build private clinics, advantaging their communities with increased revenue and high-skilled jobs.

Because the federal and provincial governments will be involved, the Enoch First Nation will pioneer the way in solving some significant jurisdictional difficulties. Ottawa could provide substantial and needed support for First Nations who would like to help deliver health care services to Canadians.

Readers may be surprised to learn that this is not the only First Nation to be involved with delivering health care. In 2012, the Westbank First Nation in BC, announced a plan to build a for-profit hospital targeting medical tourists and Canadians who needed extended care. At the time, some constitutional experts thought that this project would violate the Canada Health Act. Westbank countered this argument by proclaiming that as a self-governing community, it was not constrained by the Health Act.

In the end, Westbank abandoned the proposal.

Nevertheless, the decision by the Enoch First Nation may set a precedent by showing other First Nations how they could build healthcare clinics too. Of course, healthcare clinics would promote the establishment of other services, resulting in much needed economic and employment prospects for Indigenous people.