Southern Manitoba First Nations walk to raise support for new health authority

Chantal Seenie knows the importance of physical activity and tries to be a good role model for the clients she works with.

“I notice a huge difference in myself when I’m not being active regularly,” said the member of Roseau River First Nation.

“My sleep is off, my eating habits become really poor … I’m definitely not drinking water. Even just thinking, having mental clarity is huge when you’re working out regularly.”

Seenie, who works as a mentor for Success Through Advocacy and Role-modelling, was one of many people in First Nations across southern Manitoba put on their shoes and wrote messages on their shirts to raise support for a plan to transform the way health care is delivered in those communities.

On her shirt, Seenie wrote the names of family members who have died.

For years, the Southern Chiefs’ Organization has pushed to take more control over the delivery of health services to their people, and in June it announced it was working with the federal and Manitoba governments on the first steps toward developing its own health authority.

Identifying needs

The organization, which represents 34 First Nations and more than 81,500 people in southern Manitoba, is working to identify what are the biggest needs of its communities.

Priorities include making mental health services available in every community and improving access to primary care, said Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, who wore a shirt with “preventable diseases” written on it.

Women and girls of various ages, wearing white T-shirts and ribbon skirts, walk down a gravel road.
People in Roseau River First Nation walked on Wednesday to raise support for a plan by Southern Chiefs Organization to create a new health authority. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

“It’s really about raising awareness about being active and encouraging our young people and all of our citizens to take action and bring health into their own hands.”

Colonization — and residential schools in particular — severed First Nations people from their traditional practices, including medicine, Daniels said.

Life spans for First Nations people are currently 11 years shorter than the average Manitoban, and Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson said the goal of creating a First Nations-driven health system is to close that gap.

“And I think one of the ways is basing it on our values, our traditional values … our sacred teachings,” he said.

One way those teachings can be used is in the context of mental health, Daniels said.

“It’s really just spending time with the environment — in our culture, much of the environment is our relatives,” he said. 

“It helps your spirit and it helps your emotions and it sort of gives you time to reflect and just be quiet for a while. Because I think that those are all part of good mental health.”

Improving understanding

Having First Nations health-care professionals providing care will improve understanding between doctors and patients by seeking to balance traditional and western medicine, Henderson said.

“I think sometimes a lot of our people don’t understand when they’re given a western medication. They just take it because that’s what the doctor prescribes, but there might be alternative methods of treating an ailment through our traditional medicines.”

People in Sagkeeng are walking from the health clinic to the local arena. Walks are also happening Wednesday in Dakota Tipi, Lake Manitoba, O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi, Pinaymootang, Skownan and Waywayseecappo First Nations.

Ebb and Flow First Nation held a walk on Tuesday.

SCO embarked on the process of transforming its health system in 2019 and in June 2020, the organization signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government to work together.

A man is wearing a white T-shirt with the words "preventable diseases" written on it.
Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels says one of the ways traditional First Nations teachings can be used is in the context of mental health. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

Daniels announced in June the Manitoba government had joined the effort, and all parties committed to developing an agreement-in-principle to formalize the commitment to create a working relationship.

“Health care that is led and delivered by First Nations results in better access and outcomes,” Patty Hajdu, Minister of Indigenous Services Canada, said in a June press release announcing the partnership.

Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon called the initiative a “monumental task,” but said in the release the province is pleased to work with the SCO and the federal government on establishing a health-care model focused on Indigenous-led and community-based health care.

Daniels expects that agreement-in-principle to be finalized in the next few months.

Culturally competent primary care, improved access to mental health services, enhanced services for grandmothers and grandfathers, access to traditional healing methods and local community access to health care have all been identified as priorities.

No dates were provided as to when the new health authority might launch.

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