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Aboriginal health on the federal chopping block

If federal funding cuts are any indication, aboriginal health doesn't seem to be a priority for Ottawa.

If federal funding cuts are any indication, aboriginal health doesn’t seem to be a priority for Ottawa.

Most notably, the National Aboriginal Health Organization, which has been helping to fund and run programming across Canada for the past 12 years, has been completely cut off by Health Canada.

The organization, known as NAHO, will close its doors completely on June 30.

Since that announcement was made, numerous other national aboriginal organizations have been told their health budgets have been slashed as well.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada found out its health budget was cut by 100 per cent two weeks after the cut became effective, said Amanda Mudry, the association’s national youth representative.

“It’s a huge policy statement, basically, against aboriginal people,” she said. “It’s pretty devastating.”

Like most federal agencies reliant on cash from Ottawa, Mudry’s association was bracing for cuts, but didn’t expect any more after the NAHO announcement, she said.

“What’s going to happen next?” she said. “Is it going to be the First Nations health program at the hospital? Is it going to be the various programs in the communities?”

She said it’s hard not to be pessimistic.

And it’s hard not to make comparisons.

“Are we just going to send body bags to the reserves?” Mudry asked, referring to the federal “slip-up” during the 2009 H1N1 crisis when Ottawa sent dozens of body bags to northern Manitoba, along with hand sanitizers and face masks.

“It’s kind of a repeat. It’s not like we haven’t seen this before, it’s just sad that we’re seeing it again.”

Without healthy communities and without funding to help build them, the situation for the majority of Canada’s aboriginal groups will only get worse, said Mudry.

“If aboriginal people aren’t healthy, no matter how many programs you offer for education and training and employment and those other kinds of things, if people don’t have their basic needs met in terms of health, they’re not going to be able to participate,” she said.

“People who don’t have money can’t play the game. They can’t come to the table. They can’t talk about the issues that are affecting them in their community.

“These funding cuts have effectively silenced whole communities in terms of their ability to bring forward core health issues. In terms of aboriginal women, we were already struggling to come forward with these issues.”

The cuts to the national aboriginal women’s group will not directly affect the Yukon, but the loss of NAHO will. It has more than 50 partnerships with health-care organizations across Canada. It has more than 200 health reports, guides and fact sheets specifically for aboriginal people. And it printed the only aboriginal health journal in Canada.

The cuts not only mean the end to these programs but they will also put more stress on regional health departments. Other cuts, like 40 per cent of the Assembly of First Nations’ health budget, will also trickle down to the Yukon, she said.

“It’s a very big policy statement about the importance of aboriginal peoples and issues in Canada,” she said. “If we can’t participate in this ‘economic action plan’ that the Conservative government’s really pushing for at a federal level, then where are we going to end up? Instead of fostering the participation of aboriginal people, in terms of their health and education and other activities that lead to community well-being, we’re being cut back, which basically results in the increased involvement in the justice system. They just might as well call the new prisons that they’re building, residential schools. It’s the new replacement.”

Some may view these cuts in aboriginal health funding not as cuts at all, but rather an attempt to bring aboriginal people into the sphere of public health care, just like everyone else.

“If aboriginal people didn’t have a health gap that rivals that of a Third World country, sure,” Mudry countered. “Put it all in the same pot, have everybody access it equally, and make sure that there’s no discrimination - great. That’s what we’re going for. But until we’re there, you don’t cut the programs that try and keep people healthy.”

The most upsetting aspect of these cuts is that they are following the trend set by the “sunsetting” of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

That foundation gave money for programming, run by communities, for their communities.

“You don’t cut people doing things for themselves, by themselves,” said Mudry. “We’ve seen time and time again, the federal government cuts programming that aboriginal people are delivering by and for themselves and replaces it with government programming. And it’s a disaster.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at