Harper should focus on Canada if he wants to better child health: Inuit leader
Northern leaders say Prime Minister Stephen Harper should look to the Arctic if he wants to improve the health of newborn children.
"We're hopeful he'll tackle this issue in his own backyard," Pita Aatami, head of Makivik Corp. which oversees the land claim of Inuit in Quebec, said Friday.
"If you're going to talk the talk, you might as well practise it in your own country."
On Thursday, Harper repeated his pledge before international leaders in Davos, Switzerland, to make child and maternal health in developing nations a priority at the G8 summit in Canada later this year.
It's a note Harper has been hitting all week. In an op-ed piece published in Canadian newspapers Tuesday, the prime minister said the health of young children and mothers in many places is "not acceptable."
"The solutions are not intrinsically expensive," he wrote. "The cost of clean water, inoculations and better nutrition, as well as the training of health workers to care for women and deliver babies, is within the reach of any country in the G8."
But the day before Harper's article was printed, two major studies were published showing that Inuit infant mortality is nearly four times the Canadian average and 70 per cent of Inuit preschoolers live in homes where there isn't always enough food.
In Aatami's home community of Nunavik, in northern Quebec, the infant mortality rate is 18.1 per 1,000 babies born, almost the same as the rate in Mexico.
In a blog post Friday, the head of Canada's national Inuit group pointed out the contradiction. Mary Simon of Inuit Tapirisat Kanatami wrote: "(We) question why, if these solutions are not expensive, and are 'within the reach of any country in the G8,' the situation in (the) Inuit (homeland) remains what it is today?
"Canada, as one of the eight most prosperous countries in the world, has a significant responsibility in assisting those in the world's poorest regions. We hope the Inuit region in Canada is included on a similar list to take care of the issues inside our own country."
There was no immediate response from federal officials.
Inuit children have the highest rate of hospital admission for lower respiratory tract infections in the world. The rate of premature delivery is three times what it is in the south. Many Inuit youngsters live in overcrowded, substandard homes.
Inuit suicides - 43 per cent of which are committed by youth under the age of 20 - are 11 times more common than the Canadian average.
Aatami said he's written a letter to Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl asking if Harper's statement means the Inuit can expect to see more action on their concerns.
"We're hopeful, after that announcement, that (Harper) wants to tackle this issue," Aatami said. "Canada, being one of the richest G8 countries, should have some money for its own backyard. I'm hopeful they'll do something."
The federal government does fund maternal and infant health programs for Inuit. It also runs programs to try to reduce the incidence of diseases such as diabetes and tuberculosis.
Ottawa spent $58 million subsidizing the availability of healthy food through its food-mail program last year. As well, federal cash for renovating and building homes - a major health concern - has totalled about $500 million over the last three years.
Health Canada says the First Nations and Inuit portion of the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program has an annual budget of $14 million and reaches more than 9,000 women.
Health Canada is also investing $16 million annually to help prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and improve those born with it.
The federal government is by far the largest revenue source for territorial governments, which have primary responsibility for health services in the North.
Aatami said southerners wouldn't tolerate conditions that many northerners are forced to bear.
"We've been telling this story over and over, over the years, but unfortunately they have been falling on deaf ears."