Reconciliation must include access for proper health coverage for Indigenous peoples

Monday, June 5th, 2017 2:04pm


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By Phil Fontaine, President, Indigenous Roots


Medicinal cannabis has been approved as a legitimate treatment for a number of serious medical conditions.

By Phil Fontaine

President, Indigenous Roots

(This opinion piece was published by The Hill Times on June 5. It is reprinted with permission from The Hill Times. Fontaine is a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.)

At no other time in Canadian history has so much discussion taken place, from coast-to-coast-to-coast, about issues relating to reconciliation and calls for a renewed relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

June 2nd marked the second anniversary since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report and 94 calls to action to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.”

The date represents a historical milestone in Canada’s intention to repair and restore the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

Although the process takes time, there are real examples of reconciliation emerging all over Canada, and not just from the federal government. Individuals, businesses, organizations, universities and other groups are addressing calls to action head on.

The Liberal government has committed to implementing all 94 calls to action from the report. Included among them is #22, to “call upon those who can effect change within the Canadian healthcare system to recognize the value of Aboriginal healing practices and use them in the treatment of Aboriginal patients in collaboration with Aboriginal healers and Elders where requested by Aboriginal patients.”

A central component of reconciliation is the need for better access to health care and treatment for Indigenous peoples. Access remains a major challenge for Indigenous peoples living on and off-reserve. We are underserved because of factors like geography, lack of infrastructure, socio-economic status, jurisdictional ambiguities, and language and cultural barriers.


Indigenous peoples have a right to the best available health care options regardless of location and household income. As Canadians, we must make it a priority concern that Indigenous peoples have safe and reliable access to medicine so individuals struggling with both physical and mental health can cope and overcome their hardships.

As we’ve made strides in looking after our veterans and seniors when it comes to medication, we must ensure our Indigenous population has the same access to the same medicines. This includes medical cannabis.

Medicinal cannabis has been approved as a legitimate treatment for a number of serious medical conditions. Patients with chronic pain from cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, and gout suffer through constant pain and some are unable to cope with daily life without access to appropriate medicinal cannabis prescriptions.

Cannabis helps with the pain and gives patients the freedom to return to normal daily life. Cannabis can act as a calming agent for people with PTSD, depression, anxiety and addiction issues.

  1. Affairs Canada provides publicly-funded payments for all or most of the costs for medical cannabis to veterans who have a doctor’s prescription. Canada provides publicly-funded medication benefits to its veterans as part of Canada’s obligation to cover the medical expenses of those who have suffered in military service.

In a similar way, as part of the benefits related to the harm done by historic injustice and institutional racism against First Nations, Canada has an obligation to cover the treatment of the harm done to its Indigenous peoples.

With the Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program from Health Canada, some 824,033 Indigenous peoples are eligible for coverage, however the coverage is limited compared to the insurance provided to veterans.

Many Indigenous people continue to suffer from poor health, PTSD, anxiety, substance abuse and other chronic conditions that can lead to disability, unemployment and poverty. Comparable to Canada’s obligation to its veterans who become medical patients, Canada has an obligation to its Indigenous patients to ensure there is fairness by providing coverage for appropriate amounts of medically-prescribed cannabis.

Our vision at Indigenous Roots is to serve the unique health and wellness needs and challenges of Indigenous peoples through education and outreach, while driving socio-economic progress forward for Indigenous communities.

As an Indigenous-owned, Indigenous-operated licensed medical cannabis producer, Indigenous Roots will provide training and jobs to First Nation communities, create opportunities for investment, generate wealth, and build capacity.

It is only fair that First Nations have the same options and the same access to safe, healthy medications as our veterans, including medical cannabis. We are working hard at the policy level to see this inequality addressed.

Without a concerted effort on the part of all Canadians, the old adage that “failing to learn from the past ensures its inevitable repetition in the future” is not just a foreseeable reality but a certainty.

Canada and Indigenous people arrive at a compelling juncture, amid this country’s 150-year confederation celebrations. It offers a unique opportunity to learn about the histories and contemporary lives of Indigenous peoples and their challenging relationships with Canada. The future generations of all Canadians will benefit from this step towards reconciliation.