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Hiding Behind Your Ethnicity isn't the Answer to Aboriginal Health Cuts, Minister

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Monday in Question Period I asked Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq a simple question:

Mr. Speaker, unbelievably, the Minister of Health has made Aboriginal health the number one target for cuts in her department. She has cut programs for diabetes, youth suicide and Aboriginal health human resources. She says she is protecting front line services. Does the minister really believe that disease prevention and health promotion is not a front line service?

A minister has choices. Could the minister explain to the House why her cuts target the population with the worst health outcomes in Canada, the Aboriginal people of Canada?

In response the minister accused me of crossing the racial line in my questioning:

Mr. Speaker, as an aboriginal person I take that type of line of questioning to be unacceptable. Our government has ensured that we have protected the front line services of all heath care services across the sector.

Our government takes first nations health seriously. There were a number of funding initiatives in budget 2012 to improve water systems on reserve. We are funding $30 million annually for Aboriginal health research. Last year we invested $2.2 billion in first nations and Inuit health programs. Why does the member not support that?

My question simply repeated the concerns of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities that the budget's cuts to Aboriginal health promotion and disease promotion will increase the gap in health outcomes, reduce capacity at the community level and increase the pressure on front-line community health services.

My question certainly hit a nerve with the minisiter. The truth hurts. In defending the indefensible, she reacted emotionally with "best defence is a good offence." There is no possible "defence" for her budget choices and no one accepts her choice of a deflecting "offence." Except that it was offensive.

Here are the facts:
  • The health budget of the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) was cut by 100 per cent.
  • The health budget of the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada was cut by 100 per cent.
  • The health budget of the Métis National Council (MNC) was cut by 100 per cent.
  • The health budget of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) was cut by 40 per cent.
  • The health budget of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) was cut by 40 per cent.

The largest number of job cuts at Health Canada are in the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. And funding for the essential work of the National Aboriginal Health Organization was permanently pulled, without being reallocated to another vehicle for collaborative, community-based Aboriginal health research.

These facts speak for themselves. That is why my colleague Hedy Fry and I wrote to the minister last Friday to call on her to immediately reverse her department's cuts to Aboriginal health.

Perhaps the minister objected to my comment that "her cuts target the population with the worst health outcomes in Canada, the Aboriginal people of Canada?"

Once again, I was simply repeating what Aboriginal organizations, front-line health workers, First Nations, Inuit and Meétis leaders, and most importantly, the statistics, show.

According to the most recent data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the tuberculosis rate among Inuit is 284 times the rate for the Canadian-born non-Aboriginal population.

According to ITK, the Inuit suicide rate is 11 times higher than the national average.

According to NWAC, "Aboriginal women are newly diagnosed with HIV at over three times the rate of their non-Aboriginal counterparts, have atrocious disparities in suicide rates, and live on average almost six years less than Aboriginal women."

And as I witnessed first hand recently in my visit to Nishnawbe Aski Nation communities, some northern and remote First Nations communities are confronting far higher rates of prescription drug addiction and suicide than other parts of Canada.

Evidence doesn't lie.

Minister Aglukkaq should stop attacking the opposition and listen to what Aboriginal leaders said about her decision to dramatically cut Health Canada's funding for Aboriginal health.

NWAC responded by saying that, "Aboriginal women are the least healthy and suffer the greatest chronic health conditions than any other segment of Canadian society. The burden of ill health affects them as individuals, their families, communities and the health system as a whole. However, Aboriginal women lag far behind the rest of the Canadian population in both of these areas."

ITK President Mary Simon told the CBC that, "I really fail to see the logic. The government is saying aboriginal people are a priority for this country, but you take away the tools for the national organizations to do their work?" Further, she called the cuts "unconscionable," and predicted that they would "have major and direct negative impacts on the Inuit" making "a terrible situation worse."

Pauktuutit President Elisapee Sheutiapik "expressed extreme concern and dismay" over the cuts and concluded, "as Canadian citizens we have the right to the same health status and life expectancy as others, and the federal government has a responsibility to work with us to address the very serious health issues we are facing in our communities."

It is my job as critic/"porte-parole" to hold the government to account. My job is to be the "spokesperson'"in the House for those affected by government polices and budget choices. My job is to be a strong voice on the problems as they and I see them and to present the alternative solutions.

My line of question was entirely legitimate. It is the minister's refusal to listen to Aboriginal communities and admit the certain and negative impact of her budget cuts that is completely unacceptable.

The minister has also presided over an unprecedented attack on women's health. The most recent victim is the Women's Health Contribution Program, which supports Le Réseau Québécois d'Action pour la Santé des Femmes, the Canadian Women's Health Network, the Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women's Health, the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women's Health, the Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence and the National Network on Environments and Women's Health.

Monday's line of defence won't work there either. As I said in my question, "Ministers have choices." The minister is accountable for those choices.