MINISTER PHILPOTT ON HEALTH, EDUCATION, WATER AND DISCRIMINATION
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Declaring that "existing colonial structures" do not work, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on August 28 that the federal government department known as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada would be dissolved and replaced by two new entities to be handled by two cabinet ministers.
Carolyn Bennett, who had been minister of INAC since the fall of 2015, got a new job title: minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
At the same time, Jane Philpott, who until Aug. 28 served as national health minister, moved to a new portfolio: minister of Indigenous Services. Philpott's task is to oversee the services that Ottawa still delivers directly to many Indigenous peoples, especially First Nations.
WaterToday spoke with Jane Philpott about her new portfolio, a transcription of this conversation is found below.
WaterToday - I have with me on the phone Minister Jane Philpott. She is Indigenous Services Minister. Thanks for doing this.
Minister Philpott - My pleasure.
WaterToday - There's so much I'd like to talk to you about. First let me congratulate you on your new ministry and ask you what have you learned so far?
Minister Philpott - Well it's certainly been an educational experience in the first number of weeks. As you know I was Minister of Health before I changed to this portfolio. So I did have responsibilities related to First Nations health; and also of course I have been involved with a number of the issues which relate to health; things like education and housing which as you know are part of what it takes for people to be healthy.
But as I've dug into the details, there has been a lot to learn in the area of the tremendous socio-economic gaps that exist for Canada's indigenous people. I continue to work with First Nations, Inuit and Metis Leaders to figure out what their priorities are and what plans they have for moving ahead.
WaterToday - Oh that's interesting. What are they saying in terms of priorities to you?
Minister Philpott - Well I would say the themes that come up repeatedly are first of all child and family services; it's a major issue. I just spent the last couple of days in Manitoba and I heard about the very serious needs for work in the child welfare area. Housing is an issue that comes up repeatedly as well. And obviously it has links to health. But as you probably know there are tremendous housing shortages across the country, on reserves for example. And also for Inuit who don't live on reserves but have very serious housing gaps in their indigenous homeland areas that have adverse effects in terms of issues like tuberculosis.
You know the themes that come up are housing, water, education, health-care and economic development. I would say those are some of the key issues.
WaterToday - I'd like to bring up a few quotes that I've dug up. You have said that "the current federal approach dividing indigenous health care and the delivery of other social services that drive health outcomes is an artificial separation." Can you talk about that a little bit? What does that mean and how does it apply to a minister?
Minister Philpott - Well as I've said many times, I come with the background as a family doctor and have learned over decades what it takes for people to be healthy and obviously health care is a big part of that. But in order for people to be healthy they need to be able to have adequate housing. They need to access to clean water and nutritious food. Ideally, they need to have a good job and economic opportunities and access to good education. So what my new department does is sort of wraps all of those things together into one department to work specifically with First Nations Inuit and Metis people in the country to address those social issues that are all connected with health. This is based as you know on a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples from 20 years ago. But it's a recommendation that makes a great deal of sense.
WaterToday - I agree. So, for instance if I have mold in my house or I have bad water on the res you're looking to do all of these functions through one department. Is that about right?
Minister Philpott - Exactly. Yes. As you know many of these issues are very closely linked together. For instance if you are trying to build houses often there are challenges to get the construction equipment into communities that may have issues in terms of road access which may be seasonal. So it makes a lot of sense if this is all coming from one federal department so that we can work very closely together with other departments to make sure that communities get the resources they need.
WaterToday - I'd like to bring up water now; there's 144 water advisories around indigenous communities right now. About 85 of these are in Ontario. And most of them as unbelievable as it sounds in Canada, most of them are over a decade old. And there's no road access to a lot of these communities. Can you talk about how you might address, I mean if my band doesn't have road access and I have bad water what's my expectation of Indigenous Services now going forward?
Minister Philpott - Well we have made a commitment, as a government, to ensure that all long-term drinking water advisories are ended by the year 2021. Hopefully we may be able to do it even sooner than that, but that was a five-year commitment that we made very soon after forming government.
You know drinking water advisories fall into a number of different categories. Some are short-term some are long-term. Some are on reserve in public buildings and some are private organizations; like gas stations for example. But the ones that we have responsibility for are public water systems and we're committed particularly to these long-term ones. So there are 69 long-term drinking water advisories on reserve now that are top priority that we're working on addressing.
And you're right. There are some real challenges in terms of access to some of these communities that need to be addressed, but we are dealing with the access issues at the same time as we're dealing with improving the water system.
So, you look at a place like Shoal Lake for example, there's work being done to get a road in there; and that's happening simultaneously with the work that's being done addressing seven different water systems in that community that have had advisories on them for more than 20 years. So the issues around the road access make it more challenging. But we're not letting it stop us. We're still working with the community there in the process of developing and designing their plan, so that construction on the new water systems can begin as soon as possible.
And we will make sure that the advisories are addressed regardless of how difficult it may be to access the community
WaterToday - Well that sounds very hopeful compared to the last 10, 20 years in terms of the water situation. I just want to move quickly on to education and one more thing after that and then I'll let you go.
You talk quite a bit about the whole idea of social determinants like education. Does this mean that if I'm on a res I can soon go to school in my own language? Is that what you mean or can you speak to that?
Minister Philpott - Well there's a range of work that has to be done from the point of view of education. Most First Nations communities already have educational opportunities available locally now, but the problem, as you said, is that often the curriculum that's being delivered in those schools is not specific to First Nations and it doesn't often include courses like language training.
So, to give you a really good current example of the kinds of things that we're aiming for you can look at the announcement that we made yesterday in Manitoba where we celebrated the opening of the new Manitoba First Nations School System.
WaterToday - In Brokenhead?
Minister Philpott - Yes, the first of its kind and it's fantastic. Because it's ten different communities which are relatively small communities but they have joined together to develop this First Nation school system which will have a curriculum that's designed and delivered by First Nations. It will include things like language training and language immersion programs for students. And so this is the kind of positive thing that we want to support First Nations to work towards across the country. The process needs to be driven by First Nations. We need to be there to help provide the resources, and be available for support in other ways. But these are again longstanding recommendations that go back to all kinds of government reports over many years that have said this is what's needed. So it's really exciting to see that some of this is starting to happen.
WaterToday - I'm impressed. You sound hopeful on what I would call one of the hardest files in the federal government. That's great. Just before I let you go, I'm going to read a quote from you here and I'd like to get some context around this.
The quote goes "the colour of their skin, the language they speak should not ever be a barrier to getting the best quality of care." Can you give me some context around why you said that?
Minister Philpott - Well I believe if I'm not mistaken that was something I said last week when I was doing a scrum related to our tuberculosis elimination plan. And I was asked the question about discrimination in health-care systems.
I was addressing the issue that it's a well-known fact that discrimination does exist in a number of systems across the country and the health care system is one of the most obvious ones.
And we see that it has a huge impact. In the case of tuberculosis for example, it's possible that people don't get the care they need because the healthcare provider doesn't speak the language of the patient. And you know because people will not necessarily address a person's need purely on the basis of those medical needs. This is something that was recognized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the need to address discrimination and stigma in health systems and in other systems.
We're seeing work that's being done whether in medical schools or nursing schools or professional organizations training people in cultural sensitivity, but there's still a lot of work to be done in this area.
WaterToday - Minister Philpott I'd like to thank you for doing that. And might I add it takes a lot of moxie to say something like that.
Minister Philpott - Okay. Well thank you so much for your interest. It's really an important issue. So I appreciate getting the word out.