If the new federal Department of Indigenous Services Canada succeeds in its mission, the department itself will no longer exist in the coming years and tuberculosis will be eliminated in Nunavut.
Jane Philpott, who was appointed minister of the newly-formed department in late August, held a media conference in Ottawa on Jan. 23 to outline Indigenous Services Canada’s objectives. The five target areas are health, education, children and families, infrastructure, and Canada’s fiscal relationship with Inuit and Indigenous people.
While working to improve these spheres, the department will also make self-determination a reality for Inuit and Indigenous people, enabling them to deliver the services for their own people, Philpott committed.
The minister acknowledged that, despite progress and budget increases in recent years, many socio-economic gaps remain between the country’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.
In regards to Inuit, she put emphasis on improving health, particularly the scourge of tuberculosis, which affects Inuit at a rate 270 times higher than non-Inuit.
Philpott, who was a family physician prior to entering politics, spoke of a teenager from Qikiqtarjuaq, identified as Eileen, who died of tuberculosis last year while in Ottawa. Her diagnosis came only hours before her death, despite her illness having existed for about two years, Philpott said.
“Eileen’s story is a story that points out some of the real challenges that we face in this country with the delivery of health services in some of the most remote regions of the country,” the minister said. “It highlights some of the challenges that (Indigenous) people face in terms of potential stigma or discrimination in the healthcare system. It points out the social issues that are necessary in order for people to be healthy because we know that tuberculosis is highly dependent upon adequate housing and that overcrowding leads to higher incidences of tuberculosis. It’s stories like these that drive us to be better.”
The media conference was littered with grim statistics, which Philpott pointed out are more than figures.
“These are people’s lives,” she said. “Every statistic has a person or people behind it.”
The minister said the government will aim to make distinctions among Inuit, First Nations and Metis in its approaches to addressing problem areas. She added that the goal will be to put “sustainable structures in place and having those sustainable structures led by Indigenous people.”
At a meeting later last week pertaining to national child and family services, Inuit delegates joined the discussion for the first time, Philpott noted, adding that additional federal money has been allocated in that realm. The federal government’s ambition is 27 per cent overall funding growth in Indigenous programs for Inuit, First Nation and Metis by 2021-2022.
On the topic of funding to Indigenous groups, the minister said Ottawa is moving away from short-term, proposal-based funding to a long-term strategy of supplying financial resources.
“We are working towards systems where that funding will be sustainable and predictable in a nation-to-nation, government-to-government and Inuit-to-Crown relationship,” said Philpott.
Premier Paul Quassa expressed the terms upon which he hopes the parties can move forward.
“We appreciate a collaborative relationship with the federal government to improve the well-being and growth of Nunavummiut and the territory,” he said. “We look forward to being consulted by the new departments on areas that involve our interests and jurisdiction.”
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. did not provide a comment prior to Nunavut News’ press deadline.
Philpott said it would be “irresponsible” for the government not to acknowledge the poor outcomes for many Indigenous people.
“In many cases, circumstances are bleak for Indigenous people. I spent yesterday afternoon with a group of 70 young people – First Nations, Inuit and Metis – talking about the issue of suicide and the solutions that they had for how to address it,” she said. “The stories I heard yesterday afternoon would break your heart. We can’t be in denial about this.”