Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has told the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Health Centre (MUAHC) Board of Directors to stop circulating a petition drive seeking public consultation to secure a building for an Indigenous Health Centre in Montreal.
He apparently told members of the group last Wednesday that he has agreed to their request, and will “hold consultations on opening a specialized centre for the needs of Indigenous people in Montreal,” according to CTV News Montreal.
Needed: 15,000 signatories
Unlike many other prominent Canadian cities, including Toronto and Ottawa, Montreal does not have an Indigenous Health Centre.
Volunteers under the MUAHC Board of Directors (itself associated with the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy, or NETWORK) were attempting to rectify this, petitioning across Montreal to gather the 15,000 signatures necessary to secure official public consultation on an Indigenous Health Centre.
Efforts included visiting local university and CEGEP campuses, and a petition drive on the McGill campus last Friday, January 20.
The mayor’s decision could potentially be seen as a victory for petitioners, primarily because of the sheer difficulty of obtaining 15,000 signatures before the previously established deadline of February 25, 2017.
“We’re not allowed to get electronic signatures,” said Pascale Annoual, a member of NETWORK who was present on the McGill campus to obtain signatures, in an interview with The Daily. “The city doesn’t trust [those] signatures.”
Annoual explained that the city is working on making petitioning more accessible in a more technology-driven world, but as of now, petitions like this one are “bound by the old laws.”
In addition to that restriction, only residents of certain municipalities could sign, with residents of other municipalities unable to because they fall under the category of “independent cities,” or separate municipal jurisdictions. For example, residents of Montreal Nord-Centre could not sign the petition.
The disproportionality of Indigenous health concerns
Currently, many Inuit and First Nations people seek support at the Native Friendship Centre and Projet Autochtone du Quebec, but go to the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) for medical help.
Those who were petitioning campaigned for a new Indigenous Health Centre in Montreal on the basis that Indigenous communities in Canada face higher barriers to health care and are disproportionately affected by certain medical concerns.
In 2013, the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health released a report detailing specific health issues faced by Indigenous communities in Canada.
“Even if the health of Indigenous communities has improved over the last few years, the state of health of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people continues to be considerably inferior to those of other Canadians,” reads the report in French. “According to multiple indicators of health, the burden of illness or health disparities affecting First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples are still disproportionate.”
Volunteers who petitioned for signatures handed out press releases which in part detailed those disparities, explaining how “while Aboriginal peoples comprise 3.8 per cent of Canada’s population, they account for 8 per cent of people living with HIV and 12.5 per cent of new infections.” They also detailed how Indigenous people are at higher risk of developing tuberculosis, diabetes, and related complications.
“Greater effort is needed to provide Aboriginal people with culturally sensitive, inclusive health policies, and targeted health programs,” reads the press release.
Annoual detailed the challenges faced by Indigenous communities in Montreal, which comprise an estimated total of 20,000 people.
“You have a lot of provincial health services that are mostly in French, and they’re not holistic enough,” she explained, “so you [see] services for part of the population, but not all the population. […] Montreal, being more of a cosmopolitan city, could and would have to go beyond the provincial model, which is mostly francophone.”
Annoual also explained how provincial health services don’t cater to Indigenous needs.
“[In Quebec, there] is only one model: the pharmaco-medical model,” she said. “Basically, it’s highly specialized. If you have an earache, you go to your GP [General Practitioner] and they give you a reference to see your ENT [Ear Nose and Throat doctor]. If you hurt your right foot, you go back to your system, you see your GP, get a referral, and you go see another specialist.”
“If you have a different belief as to why you’re having those ailments, and how to get better for those ailments, let’s say that includes a spiritual belief, then you’re […] on your own,” she elaborated. “An Aboriginal Health Center model answers to physical, emotional, mental and spiritual perspectives on health – a holistic and integrated model, all under one roof. That doesn’t exist in Canada.”
Past Indigenous community centers
The proposed health center wouldn’t be the first center in Montreal dedicated to addressing Indigenous-specific issues.
In 2010, the Ivirtivik Center (South) opened in the Montreal neighborhood of Verdun. Its goal was to aid Inuit participants in integrating into the workforce or to assist them in going back to school, offering activities, services, classes, and counseling in French, English, and Inuktitut.
However, while the center’s aims were admirable, this didn’t prevent some from campaigning against it during its initial construction. Certain locals in Verdun passed out flyers with “Not in my backyard,” written on them, objecting to the center’s construction for transparently racist reasons.
“Basically, it’s the same barriers as health services,” explained Annoual. “There’s a huge amount of stereotypes and misconceptions, and misinformation about [Indigenous peoples].
Annoual feels it’s important to remind Montrealers of the medical barriers Indigenous peoples face and the racial politics that might accompany those initiatives to solve them.
In an email to The Daily, Jasmine Ramze Rezaee, a project administrator at the McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE), as well as a member of NETWORK, emphasized that while recent developments with Coderre indicate a positive shift in the status quo, it is still just one component in the fight to aid Indigenous health issues in Montreal.
“Despite the Mayor’s promise to hold consultations on the issue,” she wrote, “we must not forget why culturally sensitive medical care is important. Aboriginal peoples face barriers to accessing health services that non-Aboriginals often do not, such as racism and discrimination, jurisdiction and eligibility issues, and lack of clarity and advocacy.”
“Only by addressing these issues in a collaborative, inclusive, and participatory manner can they be resolved,” she continued. “In this way, I hope that the public consultations headed by the Mayor will include strong Aboriginal representatives and produce concrete results.”
In her email, Ramze Rezaee highlighted the role of non-Indigenous allies in the struggle for better health.
“To clarify, I am an ally,” she wrote. “For me, it’s important to remember that I am a settler on this land, that I’ve benefitted from the history of colonialism – whether directly or indirectly – and that it is in my power to honour Aboriginal resilience through my support.”