9th Annual MJLH Colloquium in Review: Indigenous Health and Access to Medicines in Canada

Posted By Chris Laliberté

On Saturday, February 11th, the McGill Journal of Law and Health hosted its ninth annual Colloquium Event. Held in the Moot Court, the event titled “Access and Equity: Indigenous Health and Law in Canada” featured two panels of experts and activists who regularly engage with First Nations peoples and the challenges they face accessing healthcare in Canada.

The morning panel featured Dr. Cindy Blackstock, PhD, Professor Larry Chartrand, and Dr. Janet Smylie, MD, MPH. The discussion centred on the systemic and social barriers to equitable healthcare for First Nations peoples.

Dr. Blackstock discussed the dissonance between the Crown’s spoken intentions to provide aid to First Nations communities and the repeated use of technicalities to defeat cases before the court can address the merits. In particular, she cited an instance where the Ministry of Indian Affairs failed to provide emergency aid funding for suicide prevention programs because the requests came at an awkward time in the funding cycle. Of the $200M needed, only one third – $60.38M – made it to the communities in desperate need of help.

“If it’s not good enough for the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, why is it good enough for you?” –Dr. Cindy Blackstock on Parliament’s excuses for inaction on First Nations issues

Next, Prof. Larry Chartrand offered a critical perspective on Hamilton Health Sciences Centre v. D.H., clarifying the contentious points as regards the application of s. 35 Aboriginal Rights. Chartrand argued that Western interpretations and applications of the law tend to ignore the collective nature of Aboriginal Rights so as to threaten their independence and render them meaningless. In fact, the imposition of Western notions of the “best interests of the child” inherently denies the sovereignty of First Nations peoples and the principles of First Nations law—such as the Haudenausonee nation’s core tenet to act in the best interests of their children. In the spirit of reconciliation, Chartrand asked neither agreement or even endorsement, only understanding, trust, and respect for First Nations peoples’ self-determination in healthcare.

Dr. Janet Smylie, as a practicing physician, recounted her first-hand experiences with the injuries and deaths suffered by First Nations patients due to negligence motivated by racist assumptions among hospital staff. Smylie emphasized the need for intersectional approaches to law and healthcare, pointing to systemic, epistemic, and attitudinal racism as predominant barriers to the equitable provision of health services. She cited the tragic Brian Sinclair case and the demonstrable failure to provide emergency interventions for First Nations patients as examples of death by discrimination. To combat the underlying prejudicial effects of colonialism on the health of First Nations peoples, hospitals and staff in Canada must implement anti-racist training and practices to account for unconscious bias and provide more equitable care.

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After a short lunch, the afternoon panel featured Mr. Normand D’Aaragon, Dr. Christopher Lalonde, PhD, and Dr. Ronald Niezen, PhD. The discussion centred on the causal relationships underlying the high rates of suicide among many First Nations communities, and means of addressing this crisis.

Mr. Normand D’Aragon opened the afternoon with a discussion of his work helping First Nations families heal the wounds of intergenerational trauma due to a history of colonial violence and oppression. D’Aragon relayed his experiences working with two families. The first family, he said, had lost their eldest son to suicide, and feared for the well-being of their second. He traced their family’s story to the grandmother’s two brothers, who never returned from residential schools. Future sons in the family, he said, were deprived of their individuality as a result of the unresolved grief over the ancestral loss of life. Another case concerned a family in which a girl who attempted suicide had lost three cousins and an uncle to self-harm. D’Aragon traced this grief back to the trauma of the great grandparents, who lost five children in infancy due to toxic water on the reserve and neglectful treatment at the hospital.

Dr. Christopher Lalonde presented his team’s work quantifying the suicide crisis among First Nations communities so as to identify pain points and causation in an effort to direct and distribute interventions that will result in healing for the affected communities. Among other misrepresentations, Lalonde dispelled the implication conveyed through the media that being of First Nations heritage is itself a risk factor for suicidal ideation, an idea he described as “insulting and clearly false”. In fact, First Nations communities show immense variability in suicide rates by health region and census region, with over half showing a 0 rate of suicide. The data collected by Lalonde’s team suggest an inverse correlation between the suicide rate and a variety of social factors, including cultural continuity, inclusion of women in government, political autonomy, and access to mentorship and education services. Communities proved healthiest when granted the autonomy to preserve and promote traditional practices while navigating a clear and unified path towards the future.

“Give Cindy Blackstock all the money she ever asks for.” –Dr. Christopher Lalonde on activism for First Nations peoples access to medical care

Dr. Ronald Niezen concluded the panel by recounting his experience working with First Nations communities, and his observations as to the social patterns underlying the development of suicide crises. In the six months he spent working with intervenors on the reserve, there were 144 reported interventions and 9 suicides. Niezen explained that suicide clusters like this one emit a certain social influence that encourages mutual action, and that the ideation of suicide spreads throughout the community as a response to colonial trauma. He also expressed concerns that the publicity given to interventions creates a tension between the call to action for relief funding and the risk of stereotyping First Nations peoples in the public perception.

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