Canada’s swine flu shame

by Special Correspondent Jessica Yee, originally published at Comment is Free


For Canada’s First Nations communities, being denied our basic and fundamental human rights is, sadly, not at all a surprise. So after last week’s report that the Canadian government had postponed the delivery of much-needed alcohol-based hand sanitisers to reserve communities with massive outbreaks of the swine flu virus out of apparent “fear” of theft driven by alcoholism in the community, I stopped to think about it for a second. “Same old stupid government perpetuating the colonisation of our people,” I thought. But there’s more going on here that needs to be addressed.

Let’s review the facts. In the two and a half weeks that the government deliberated over whether to send hand sanitiser to reserve communities, this is what happened:

    • More swine flu cases developed

    • Chiefs, community leaders, nurses and community health representatives scrambled to deal with the escalating outbreak without help from a non-responsive government

    • Families, children, elders and community members in these areas had no choice but to wait and see if they were going to get any type of diagnosis or care as conditions worsened

    • The wider Canadian population heard occasional reports of the virus developing more in First Nations communities but not enough to warrant a national outpouring of support.

Access to necessary healthcare services is an ongoing problem for many indigenous people around the world, and Canada is no exception. But universal healthcare and non-insured health benefits (which First Nations and Inuit individuals receive in Canada) don’t mean anything if you live somewhere you still cannot get household plumbing, let alone a visit to the doctor.

The statistics are everywhere: this month, a report from a Senate subcommittee on population health highlighted the inadequacies and inequities of First Nation health systems and services that contribute to “third-world health conditions”. This is what the report says:

Canada is generally perceived as one of the greatest countries in the world in which to live. It has a vast and diverse geography rich in natural resources, clean air and a vast territory. When it comes to health, however, we unfortunately have serious disparities. Some Canadians live their lives in excellent health with one of the highest life expectancies in the world; paradoxically others spend their life in poor health, with a life expectancy similar to some third world countries. The unfortunate Canadians who suffer poor health throughout their lifetime are frequently less productive, adding to the burden on the healthcare delivery system and social safety net. We cannot correct this inequity through the healthcare delivery system itself, regardless of the expenditure we devote to it.

This is not even to mention that First Nations nurses get paid about 20% less than nurses who work for Health Canada. But I want people to start talking about why and how the Canadian government oppresses First Nations communities.

Canada is still a colonial state. The country operates under colonial-type laws that undermine the self-determination of First Nations people – and means we have to see if it’s okay with the government to get services to people who need them. There is promising legislature in British Columbia: a tripartite agreement between governments and First Nations healthcare services, and similar legislation under way in Saskatchewan and other provinces. But we nonetheless have to tiptoe around policymakers while our people perish mentally, physically and spiritually every day in both big cities and remote northern territories.

It doesn’t matter that the government thought it had “legitimate” reasons for withholding alcohol-based hand sanitisers from communities desperately seeking help – the truth remains that even if chiefs were saying they didn’t want them, it didn’t have non-alcoholic sanitisers ready anyway. During this entire waiting period it let people suffer, panic and scream in frustration – alone. But I guess it’s something they’re used to doing.