Members of the Dene Nation were already heavy into discussions around health care last week when they learned of impending healthcare legislation they say they had not been previously consulted on.
The GNWT announced its plans to introduce legislation this week that would do away with regional health authorities in favour of a single, centralized system – an announcement that came during last week’s Denendeh Health Symposium, where chiefs and elders from across the NWT met to discuss First Nations health issues.
“Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus got some kind of text from someone about the news that had come out on Wednesday,” said Francois Paulette, chair of the Stanton Territorial Hospital’s Elders Wellness Council. “At the conference they were talking about health, how it is to work in the future amongst the public and First Nation governments, so it was quite surprising that this legislation was moving ahead. It kind of dismisses real consultation between First Nations and the territorial government.”
In a CBC article published Jan. 28, Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy announced the proposed policy updates, describing how health services would be streamlined into one governing body. The idea of creating a health superboard was first announced in August of last year, but Paulette said no one sought input from First Nations as the legislation was developed.
Treaty First Nations in the NWT have never formally supported the devolution of health care to the territory, Paulette said. In 1988 the Dene Nation had a memoriam of understanding with the GNWT on how to proceed with a health policy transfer, but the conversation was dropped and has not been followed through since.
One of the main themes of the symposium was the integration of traditional methods of healing and treatment into the current care system, whether it be in the treatment of elders, midwifery, cancer or mental wellness.
Representatives from the GNWT said careful consideration into the topics addressed at the symposium will be considered as the new legislation is enacted.
“It’s important to understand that the work that I’m doing in terms of system transformation is ongoing,” said Robert Tordiff, executive director of system integration with the department of Health and Social Services (HSS). Tordiff has been part of a team developing new health authority structures for when the new legislation comes into effect.
“We get ourselves involved in these dialogues. We’ve been invited (to the symposium) to present in terms of the status of the work that I’m up to at the Dene Nation. We’ve had a bit of a dialogue with them and that dialogue will continue through the course of the transformational process.”
A large portion of the symposium focused on the results of a study initiated in 2013 by the Dene Nation examining the role of Aboriginal governments in the health care of their members.
“We have a section in our division that deals with the topic of Aboriginal health and we hope to work closely with the Dene Nation on some of the recommendations,” said Sabrina Broadhead, director of the Aboriginal health and community wellness division of HSS.
“One of the things that they’ve indicated is that some of the work in that area is difficult to record,” she said. “A lot of the teachings are oral and we need to find a way to work together so that people can share some of the information and find ways to learn about what is available to them in the traditional healing area.”
While relations between the Dene Nation and the territorial government might be problematized by the new legislation, Paulette believes it is possible to move forward together, as long as Aboriginal voices are heard and seriously considered.
“There is still room to talk and I mean they’re talking about health, the health of the people,” he said. “Authority cannot be just centralized, there has to be First Nations input. There’s other parts of the country in the South where the federal government is recognizing the First Nation authority boards and concepts,” he added, pointing to successful examples of Aboriginal-run health care operations in British Columbia and Manitoba.
“The one big positive outcome of this meeting I saw was that the federal representatives of the department of Health stayed the whole three days and listened to the dialogue and the outcome of the conference,” Paulette said. “There were also some other representatives of the territorial government that sat through the conference, but these are not policy makers, and that’s the downside. The upside is that the delegates who attended have made their voices loud and clear.”