A recent Winnipeg Free Press article – Citizens panel recommends Indigenous health department – by Katie May reports that a panel of thirty “randomly selected volunteers” is recommending a “dedicated Indigenous health department” in Manitoba, as an “undisputed priority”.
A health department exclusively for Indigenous people may not, however, be an undisputed priority of most Manitobans. Manitoba already has an Indigenous Affairs Secretariat. The very first principle objective of the Secretariat is: “influencing the development and delivery of policies, programs and services that help create safe, healthy and secure environments for Indigenous people.”
Manitoba has two ministers – both Indigenous – directly responsible for Indigenous affairs: Premier Wab Kinew and Hon. Ian Bushie. The two ministers are quite new to their portfolios, but no one doubts their concern for the health of Indigenous Manitobans. And other recommendations in the volunteer panel’s report will no doubt be useful as the two ministers work with the Secretariat and Indigenous communities.
But does the recommendation for a separate department sound familiar? Would a separate department lead to demands for a separate system altogether?
In 1991, the report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI) was released. Its key recommendation was the creation of a separate Aboriginal justice system.
The Gary Filmon government (of which I was Attorney General) rejected the idea that Indigenous people should have a justice system separate from that of other Canadians. The federal government, which has responsibility for criminal law, agreed. The Gary Doer and Greg Selinger NDP governments that followed the Filmon government obviously felt the same way, as Manitoba’s justice system has seen little change.
The recent failed experiment with the Maori Health Authority in New Zealand has moved the new government there to begin abolishing the separate, race-based health system. This should not be surprising; there are more than 100 Maori tribes.
A separate health department would be yet another feature of Canada’s home-grown apartheid: different rules and different programs for different people, based on race. Most people agree that the regime which operates for First Nations in Canada has been, and remains, an unmitigated disaster for ordinary Indigenous people. A disaster, except for those who profit from it – the Indigenous leadership and their friends: activists, journalists, lawyers, consultants, bureaucrats – the elites. (Let’s not forget judges, commissioners of inquiry and special interlocutors.)
We recently learned that an Indigenous family of 24 lives in one house on the St. Theresa Point First Nation, in Manitoba. As the chief of the St. Theresa Point First Nation grimly reminds us, we still see – in 2023 – “third world” conditions on reserves across Canada. These conditions give rise to many negative health outcomes.
No health department – separate or otherwise – will yield better Indigenous health outcomes until First Nations communities address the negative determinants of their own population health. First Nations communities do not need a separate health department to address their “third world” housing conditions; low education levels; unclean water supplies; nutrition issues; problems related to drugs and alcohol; family issues which include violence, abuse, and neglect of children. These, and all the other pathologies which result from First Nations’ dependence on government cannot be fixed until First Nations themselves decide to fix them. Official paternalism has prevented this since first contact, and certainly since Indian reserves were created.
First Nations people are quite able to take responsibility for their health and their families’ and communities’ stability. But the personal agency taken from them throughout the history of this country is the underpinning of the “special status” that hurts them so much. They must demand fundamental change in their relationship with government and their fellow citizens.
To achieve this change, they must demand that their leaders stop standing in the way of the progress and happiness that other Canadians take for granted.
Making First Nations Canadians real Canadians – not separate, not sovereign, not victims, not reliant on government for their very existence – will do more for them than anything even more segregation can accomplish.
Why must we continue to view Indigenous families as people who require special treatment from government? “Citizen plus” often describes a First Nation Canadian, but “Citizen minus” is far more accurate – and a national shame.
Why should we, at long last, dismantle our home-grown apartheid? To paraphrase Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s words eight years ago, “because it’s 2023.”
James C. McCrae is a former Manitoba Minister of Health and Canadian citizenship judge