08/30/2011 12:40 EDT | Updated 10/30/2011 05:12 EDT

Ottawa spending $21M to research health equity, but no study on aboriginal needs

WINNIPEG - Ottawa is spending more than $21 million over five years on research to help address gaps in health equity across Canada and around the world, but aboriginal Canadians don't seem to be on the list.

Not one of the projects outlined by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq on Tuesday directly targets aboriginals. They aren't even mentioned in descriptions of the 11 studies as far away as Benin, Burkina Faso and Ecuador.

First Nations have long complained that they are on the wrong side of the health-equity gap, but Aglukkaq says she isn't concerned their needs will be left behind.

"I'm not afraid of that because we have to look at health care overall instead of silos," she said.

"The project does not specify one ethnic group or another. It is very inclusive that way. The projects that are being rolled out in terms of research will include every Canadian and will contribute to improving the inequities that we are currently seeing throughout the country."

She also said Ottawa has programs targeting specific aboriginal health needs, such as an exceptionally high rate of diabetes.

Aboriginals may be included in some of the general population work being undertaken, but Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is disappointed their concerns won't be specifically addressed.

"Absolutely I'm disappointed," he said.

"I find it very problematic that considering Manitoba First Nations and First Nations people in general in Canada receive the greatest inequity when it comes to health programs and services that we've been completely left out of the discussion."

He said rolling aboriginal people into other research isn't good enough. But he also said the time for research into aboriginal health problems may have passed. What's needed is action.

"The bottom line is (that) the disparities are slapping our people in the face every day."

Health professionals describe health equity as everyone having the same opportunity for a healthy and productive life, regardless of social or economic status, gender or age.

The projects include:

— A University of British Columbia study on the needs of health-care workers in low- and middle-income countries.

— A Laval University project that includes HIV prevention and reproductive health care promotion in Benin.

— A University of Manitoba study to determine which programs have improved or widened the equity gap among children.

— A McGill University look at policies in high- and low-income countries to reduce poverty and gender inequity, and their effect on illness and death in children and women under 50.

— A University of Toronto study of policies that might reduce household food insecurity in Canada.

Dr. Patricia Martens of the University of Manitoba says that project will try to find out which provincial government programs have made things better and which have only widened health inequity among children.

"I think we have to understand health in a much broader sense," she said.

Aboriginal Canadians, many of whom live in northern communities, will be included in the study, she said.

"We're looking at geography ... What is working up north? What is working in the city of Winnipeg?"