Newly minted Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says her new department will likely include the delivery of health services for First Nations and Inuit — an area previously under her watch at Health Canada.
Philpott said consultations and legislation will be required for the creation of her new ministry, but she said the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples clearly suggested a new department should handle health delivery on a gradually diminishing basis.
"The royal commission structure that was recommended is fairly similar to the approach that we are taking, suggesting that all health services would be managed through a new department and a minister that was responsible for delivery of those services until such time that self-governing First Nations or other Indigenous communities were ready, willing and able to take over those areas," Philpott said in an interview.
She also said the current federal approach — dividing Indigenous health care and the delivery of other social services that drive health outcomes — is an "artificial separation," while the new department affords an opportunity to bring this all under one roof.
"Health services fits very strongly in with other social determinants like education and child care and so many other issues that will be under the portfolio," Philpott said.
"In a way, my job is a step in the process necessary in the short term in order to fix many things that are not working right and to address many injustices in terms of the level of services that are being provided, but it is not intended that the department of Indigenous Services will be around forever."
'Opportunity' for Indigenous communities
Self-determination of communities, including the ability to control health services, was the vision behind an agreement recently inked by Ottawa, Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) and the province of Ontario, she said, noting it looks to put control and direction in the hands of the communities needing the services.
NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he is pleased to see a new federal department is being created, adding he wants to see it do business differently.
"We need to dismantle the whole system and in its place, build a system that will finally meet the needs of our communities," he said.
"Our communities have to be engaged in a meaningful way to ensure that the solutions that they have are incorporated into this process. I welcome the opportunity to be involved and for our communities to be involved in that work."
Dr. Alika Lafontaine, past president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada, said the federal government now has a blank slate to lay out a new vision.
"Minister Philpott has a great a chance to impact health disparities positively, as early politicians had to completely
dismantle the health systems that existed in our Indigenous communities," he said.
"This is probably the biggest opportunity that has been given to Indigenous communities in a very long time."
Philpott agrees the new ministry provides an "incredible opportunity."
"Our government needs to be listening very carefully and acting on the good advice of people who have thought about this for a very long time, that this has to be a momentous change," she said.
"I think the blank slate metaphor is a good one and one that we certainly need to keep in mind — that this is a new future."
Northern Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus, who is currently running to become leader of his party, said the key issue is to ensure the federal delivery of services is transformed and made more transparent for communities.
"Simply moving the office doesn't really change anything."