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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

A new principle?

BY Will Nicholls Feb 26, 2024

Jordan’s Principle came about after people became outraged by the inequality of public services afforded Indigenous children compared to all other children in Canada. As a result, programs were created to address the inequities and to try to ensure that they are not the norm anymore. Perhaps the system created is not perfect, but it was a step in the right direction.

One of the concepts it embraced was that of substantive equality. Many had no idea what this meant. After all, government and bureaucracy are experts in double-speak. It turns out that substantive equality is legal terminology for the principle of true equality in outcomes. 

Given human nature, one wonders if this is achievable. To succeed, it would need equal access, equal opportunity and the provision of services and benefits in a manner that meets unique needs and circumstances – such as cultural, social, economic and historical disadvantages. 

To ensure substantive equality the Canadian government and the provinces have hopefully started a process to overcome barriers that led to the inequalities experienced by certain members of their population.

While Jordan’s Principle has been given some of the tools needed to address the inequities experienced by First Nations children, this principle needs to be expanded to First Nation Elders. 

We have all heard horror stories of what happens to First Nations patients when they leave their communities to seek health care in the south. Perhaps some incidents happen because of a lack of understanding of how things work down there. But others are indicative of the lack of trust First Nations feel when dealing with the very people who are supposed to help them.

If you are too aggressive in trying to get help from any member of the public service, you are in trouble even if they are aggressive with you.

Former Cree Grand Chief Matthew Mukash was medevaced from Whapmagoustui to Montreal January 7. When he arrived, he spent four days on a gurney in a hospital hallway. Placed near the entrance of the Emergency Room of the Montreal General Hospital, Mukash said he had problems sleeping. He was told it was temporary while awaiting results from tests and scans. 

Mukash’s story reflects First Nations realities in Canada. McGill Family Medicine Assistant Professor Richard Budgell believes the example of Mukash’s treatment shows part of the “system collapse” in Quebec. 

Budgell added that arriving in the south just to find a wait of several hours or maybe days to get assistance makes “a bad situation worse.” As Budgell observed, “Even when you know people are trying to be as caring as possible, it’s still uncomfortable.”

Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière said he was very concerned about the experience Mukash endured. But he added that he needed more information to judge what could have been done differently and what, if anything, should be done in the future. A response like that from an “Indigenous Affairs” minister is incredibly revealing about the prospect of substantive equality in Quebec. 

The hospital defended its treatment of Mukash by saying the health system is undergoing difficulties and that all patients are affected regardless of their origin or culture. There is a lack of beds and staff, they said, and not just at Montreal General.

Nevertheless, this incident shows that in addition to Jordan’s Principle we need a “Mukash Principle” – Indigenous Elders should be treated with sensitivity, and especially, substantive equality when seeking public services. 

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.