Effort called 'starting point' to better health
Facebook Twitter Email

Officials in British Columbia began distributing a new health handbook to 27,000 Aboriginal homes on Monday as part of a comprehensive, multi-year effort to improve the well-being of First Nations communities.

The 80-page document is the product of a federal-tribal task force on Native health that was created to address what has been called a major "crisis." Aboriginals in B.C. have the highest rates of accidental deaths, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory ailments.

Although Sindi Hawkins, the province's top health minister, noted some improvements in a recent report on Native health, tribal officials expect the problems to increase in the coming years.

"Our primary concern is to improve the health of B.C.'s First Nations," said Margery McRae, a member of the Gitanmaax First Nation and the chair of the tribal health committee that helped develop the package.

The substandard status is largely attributed to lack of access to the health care system. With more than 100,000 Natives representing 200 bands spread throughout the province in urban and rural communities, services are disparate, uneven and often unreliable, especially in remote reserves.

With that in mind, the handbook seeks to inform readers about their options, what to ask for and what to expect when they seek medical attention. It's essentially a patients' bill of rights, an appropriate term given the Canadian government's constitutional obligation for the health of Aboriginals.

It also seeks to educate non-Native health providers about the people they serve. First Nations leaders point out that their culture and traditions continue to play an important role in their everyday lives.

"The reality is B.C.'s First Nations have unique health care needs and challenges," said Edward John, chief of the Tl’azt’en Nation and a member of the task force.

Tribal leaders in B.C. have given themselves until March 2004 to develop a larger health improvement strategy, of which the handbook is considered just a "starting point." Timelines to carry out the plan have not yet been established.

Throughout Canada, the status of Natives falls behind the rest of the nation. First Nations communities are plagued with suicide, substance abuse and other health problems. Off-reserve Natives are often worse off than their counterparts, according to a 2002 study that showed high rates of alcohol abuse, obesity and poverty.

The First Nations Inuit Health Branch, part of Canada's health department, is charged with delivering services to more than 650,000 Natives. The population is expected to grow to nearly 800,000 by 2008.

Relevant Documents:
BC First Nations Health Handbook (PDF 2.6 MB)

Relevant Links:
Aboriginal Health, B.C. Ministry of Health Planning -
Aboriginal Canada Portal -
First Nations Inuit Health Branch -

Related Stories:
Report documents off-reserve health (08/28)