First Nations prime ground for H1N1 pandemic

Doug Cuthand, The StarPhoenix

Published: Friday, June 19, 2009

Treaty 6 chiefs in Saskatchewan and Alberta will sign an agreement this week to work together on a medicine chest task force.

The agreement comes after a traditional gathering of chiefs, elders and First Nations citizens to discuss the state of health care, with special reference to the medicine chest clause in the treaty.

The clause was inserted into Treaty 6, which covers the First Nations in central Alberta and Saskatchewan, because the chiefs present in 1876 feared the diseases that were being introduced as a result of increased European contact.

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The clause stipulates that a "medicine chest be kept at the house of the Indian agent for the use and benefit of the Indians." Over the years, its meaning has been expanded and interpreted in the broader context of the spirit and intent of treaties to mean universal health care.

Medicare is a fact of life now for Canadians, but it isn't universal. There are still items such as the prescription drugs, dental and optical care that are not included.

Making health care truly universal for First Nations people has been the goal of our leaders for decades. Medical care for everyone has expanded greatly from the medical chest to modern medical care. If we are to regard our treaties as living documents, then we must see that they reflect the technology of the times. To do otherwise fossilizes our treaties and disregards their spirit and intent.

This gathering to discuss treaty issues is older than the treaties themselves. For generations our leaders and elders have gathered in the summer to discuss issues of importance across Indian Country. Information has been exchanged and policies developed at these meetings.

This year, the gathering takes place on the Moosomin First Nation and the topic under discussion is First Nations control of health care. This follows the discussions three decades ago that led to the policy of Indian control of Indian education.

Part of the discussions revolve around the threat of the H1N1 flu pandemic. This threat takes us back to the concerns expressed by our leaders more than 130 years ago. They feared the new diseases that were decimating their population and they wanted health care included under the terms of the treaty.

The H1N1 flu, otherwise known as swine flu, has been in the news for several months. However, it's slipped to the back pages even though the pandemic is steadily growing throughout the world. The World Health Organization has declared the H1N1 flu the first pandemic of the 21st century and the first one in 41 years.

In Canada, it is hitting the First Nations and Inuit communities the hardest. In Manitoba, the First Nations communities of Garden River and St. Theresa's Point have been walloped by the flu outbreak. Across the border in Ontario, the Sandy Lake First Nation has reported more than 120 people sick with the flu.

So what are the factors that are leading to a high rate of H1N1 in the aboriginal community?

Inadequate living conditions that include poor housing and overcrowding are most probably the causes of its spread. It is impossible to prevent the disease from spreading when you have three families living in a two-bedroom home, according to Chief Adam Fiddler of the Sandy Lake First Nation.


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