Harper’s apology paves way for native health care reforms

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to residential school survivors could foster more First Nations participation in the healthcare system,…

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to residential school survivors could foster more First Nations participation in the healthcare system, said prominent First Nations healthcare researcher Madeleine Dion Stout.

“The apology yesterday is a new beginning in many ways because it’s going to be more about relationship building. We’re no longer going to be strangers to one another in the country,” Stout said.

A residential school survivor herself, Stout initially worked as a registered nurse and later obtained a master’s degree in international affairs.

She runs her own firm, where she works as a researcher, writer and lecturer on First Nations, Inuit and Métis health.

Healthcare culture has long been exclusionary of First Nations, said Stout.

Even her own lifelong profession of nursing is “guilty” in that regard, she said.

“I think the (existing) structures we work with as professionals, those will come tumbling down,” she said.

Stout was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists held in Whitehorse.

The 2008 conference represents the first time the therapists’ association has actively sought First Nations involvement.

In addition to Stout’s address, attendees were entertained during the opening ceremonies by Dahk Ka Kwaan First Nations performers.

A host of workshops on the second and third day of the conference will examine aspects of healthcare from an Aboriginal perspective.

“It’s a critical step forward. We’ve broken the mould and thrown it away today. That’s the sense I got from the CAOT — the same sense I got from (Harper’s) apology,” said Stout.

“Now we’re onto a new project that is more inclusive, that is more respectful, that is hopefully more reciprocal.”

Stout’s keynote address looked closely at the challenges of providing inclusive and accessible healthcare to Inuit, First Nations and Metis people.

She looked particularly at the differing ways of acquiring medical “evidence,” beyond simple biomedical research.

The speech wrapped up to a standing ovation.

“I think occupational therapists have a lot to learn from First Nations people,” said Alison Gerlach, an occupational therapist and co-ordinator at the conference.

“I think today was the beginning of this audience realizing the incredible richness of knowledge that we can bring to our professions,” he added.

“That will benefit First Nations people, but it will also benefit our professions enormously.”

Continued reform will help to bridge a critical “social distance” that has existed between healthcare and First Nations communities, said Gerlach.

“In the past, many (First Nations) people have not felt safe accessing healthcare services because of how they’ve been treated historically,” she said.

Gerlach cited tuberculosis hospitals: First Nations people were flown south, separated from their families, and kept in quarantine for six months or longer.

First Nations elders have been moved out of northern communities into facilities further south in Dawson and Whitehorse.

“They may as well be the other side of the earth,” said Wade Scoffin, a Whitehorse-based occupational therapist.

“Historically, healthcare has been equated with assimilation,” said Gerlach.

Previous attempts to bridge that social distance have failed, because they have failed to be sensitive to cultural needs.

“There’s been a lot of money put into trying to address the health disparities that many aboriginals experience, but the money has been focused on traditional Western biomedical ways of delivering healthcare,” said Gerlach.

Occupational therapy is an ideal health-care field in which to foster increased First Nations co-operation, because it deals so closely with tailoring healthcare needs to individual patients, said Gerlach.

“The profession is very holistic, it looks at the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual person — I think we need to look at the spiritual more,” she said.