'A very powerful moment in our history': Southern First Nations take greater control over health care

First Nations in southern Manitoba will take more control over their healthcare services as part of an agreement with the federal government that aims to close gaps in access to care.

Memorandum of understanding signed Thursday between Southern Chiefs' Organization, Indigenous Services Canada

Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels signed a memorandum of understanding regarding health transformation funding on Thursday. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

First Nations in southern Manitoba will take greater control over their healthcare services as part of a new agreement with the federal government.

Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels and Pine Creek First Nation Chief Karen Batson signed the memorandum of understanding, which outlines principles of equitable and culturally appropriate health care for the 34 First Nations represented by the organization. 

Daniels said the moment signified a move toward closing gaps in health outcomes for First Nations in the province.

"This is a very powerful moment in our history," he said at a news conference on Thursday morning.

"There will be long days ahead, and it will take all of us to work together to make change happen."

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller joined the news conference at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg on Thursday virtually. Pine Creek First Nation Chief Karen Batson and Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels were there in person to sign the memorandum of understanding. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, who joined virtually from Ottawa to sign the document, said Canada has spent more than $71 million over the past three years in First Nations-led healthcare initiatives.

Of that money, $43 million was spent in Manitoba and $5.1 million went toward supporting the Southern Chiefs' Organization, he said. Miller said that includes $600,000 that came from this fiscal year's health services integration fund, which support projects aimed at meeting the health-care needs of First Nations and Inuit.

"With this funding, you will be able to continue to advance your work on health transformation in Manitoba according to your priorities and according to your needs," Miller said.

'Gaps need to close'

Miller said the path forward needs to include high-quality, culturally safe health systems designed by First Nations that are more accessible for people living in First Nations communities.

He said the agreement reflects the federal government and the Southern Chief's Organization's shared vision and commitment to working collaboratively to address gaps in healthcare for First Nations people.

"Those gaps need to close," he said. "We cannot shy away from that."

The initiative will create a new First Nations health governance structure accountable to First Nation communities, the Southern Chiefs' Organization wrote in a news release on Thursday. The model will be led by the community and will cover physical, spiritual, mental, economic, environmental, social and cultural wellness, it said.

Batson, who is also chair of the group that leads the organization's health transformation initiatives, said the agreement marks a commitment to work together on the new health system governance model.

"By improving our health status, we improve not only health, but wellbeing, quality of life, and the future for our communities and for the generations to come," she said.