Indigenous public health needs greater attention, says new NWT chief public health officer

Indigenous public health needs greater attention, says new NWT chief public health officer
Lorne Clearsky

Calling public health the “poor cousins” of the health field, the new NWT Chief Public Health Officer has pledged to do what he can to increase the attention given to preventative health measures that have the potential for huge cost savings over the long-term.

Lorne Clearsky took over from acting Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola last week, in the latest progression of a diverse career that has taken him from being a family doctor for fly-in First Nation communities in northern Manitoba to an associate professor at the University of Manitoba to a deputy medical officer in Calgary.

In a wide-ranging, candid Slave River Journal interview, Clearsky had strong words about his medical school training, calling it “another form of colonization.” He was also critical of a health system that he says often blames Aboriginal people for their health problems.

He said the opportunity he has in the NWT extends beyond advancing the cause of public health, which receives a mere three per cent of average health department budgets in Canada.

Part of his task, Clearsky said, will be to change the way society thinks and speaks about Aboriginal health issues.

“You have to have the strength to speak up when you have to, which often disrupts people’s belief systems,” Clearsky said. “That’s one of the important roles here. As Aboriginal people we’re starting to unveil the hidden truths people don’t want to see.”

Clearsky was born on the Waywayseecappo First Nation in Manitoba, before moving to Winnipeg when he was in grade six. His mother attended university while he was a teenager, which helped him see the possibility of getting his own post-secondary education.

He said that his mother’s example – she constantly told him that he would be going to university – would serve many communities where young people have to overcome the fear of the unknown when it comes to post-secondary education.

Getting more northern youth into the university system is a major step in capacity-building in the NWT, Clearsky said, which would translate into more northerners filling medical jobs in the territory and improve health outcomes in communities.

Clearsky repeatedly emphasized that he plans to get out into the communities as soon as possible, to start to build an understanding of what the needs and opportunities are in the diverse regions of the NWT.

He said he learned while working in northern Manitoba that each community has different strengths needing to be fostered.

He also learned during that time that his efforts as a family doctor were getting him nowhere in addressing the bigger, systematic problems seen in the health of communities.

“It felt like I was treating the symptoms of something bigger,” Clearsky said. “That’s why this position is interesting to me, to influence the health of the population as a whole.”

But he knows the solutions will take time to implement.

“Colonization has been going on for 500 years,” he said. “We’re talking generational issues.”

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