OTTAWA — Manitoba's southern First Nations have inked a deal with Ottawa to gradually transfer control of health care to local bands from federal bureaucrats.
"This is a very important moment in our history," Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said at a Thursday morning signing of a memorandum of understanding with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.
"It marks an important step in exercising our inherent treaty right to health, in the way our ancestors intended," Daniels said through a livestream.
The interim deal sets out priorities in ongoing negotiations to eventually shift on-reserve health care into local hands.
Miller said that autonomy is key to closing the gap between Indigenous and general health outcomes in Manitoba.
"The path forward has to include high-quality, cultural-safe health systems that are designed by, and under the leadership of First Nations," Miller said.
Ottawa inked a similar deal in September 2018 with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, a group similar to SCO but represents Manitoba's north. At that point, MKO already had a mental health team that deploys to reserves in crisis to help with issues such as multiple suicides.
Daniels said SCO is working on devolving responsibilities, but has established health liaisons who help identify their community's health needs, evaluates the effectiveness of health-care delivery and offers suggestions to chiefs and federal officials.
"Now we'll start to see a bigger focus on a bigger and bigger transfer of authority to First Nations leadership in the years to come," said Daniels, who hopes to see tangible results in six to 12 months.
In March, Daniels visited Cuba to support local reserves who wanted to accept that country's offer to deploy doctors for communities that are only served by federal nurses.
"The path forward has to include high-quality, cultural-safe health systems that are designed by, and under the leadership of First Nations." ‐ Marc Miller, Indigenous Services Minister
Daniels said Thursday those talks are ongoing, including getting Ottawa to approve visas, but he said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the process.
"It's been a bit difficult under the circumstance to engage in fulsome discussions around that," he said.
The current agreements with SCO and MKO could see each eventually form a First Nations health authority, similar to one in British Columbia, though this would likely require provincial consent.
The B.C. body has legal responsibility over delivering provincial and federal health programs, but an autonomous management that sets priorities and collects data based on Indigenous priorities.
Researchers argue such models have provided better outcomes for patients, who in turn trust doctors and nurses more than general medical staff.