The following is an abridged transcript of a speech delivered April 20 by Alika Lafontaine, the collaborative team lead at the Indigenous Health Alliance. Lafontaine was the recipient of the 2017 Indigenous Emerging Leader, at the 2017 Public Policy Forum Testimonial Dinner and Awards.

I’d like to share two stories, one about myself and one about a patient.

In elementary school, I was labelled as developmentally delayed. I had difficulty pronouncing most words. After months of speech therapy, the principal met with me and my parents and told us I’d never graduate high school. My parents were devastated. After the meeting my Mom held me for a very long time, telling me over and over I wasn’t broken. My parents, obviously, didn’t accept my principal’s expectations of me.

Early in medical training, I met a young boy with a ruptured spleen; the result of a car accident. Although major surgery, ruptured spleens are not that uncommon. Being otherwise healthy, my physician supervisor and I reassured the boy and his family that everything would likely be fine. Deep into the surgery we realized the damage to his vasculature was more extensive than originally thought. Eventually we had exhausted every surgical option. There was nothing else we could do.

The image of his mother, standing over his body whispering her final goodbye has been burned into my mind. As [the mother] left the operating room, my physician supervisor put his arm around me. “You think you failed this family,” he said. “But what you’re feeling isn’t failure, its regret. No one expected this child to die tonight.”

Of everything we believe when creating public policy, expectations are likely the most important. I want you to consider the following common beliefs:

It will take decades for health disparities between Indigenous Peoples and the rest of Canada to be eliminated.

Perpetual crises in suicide, out-of-control chronic disease and lack of access to basic health services for too many First Nations is heartbreaking, but there’s little we can do quickly.

The situations are just too complex with too many moving pieces. We still need more research.

These are not facts. These are expectations. And expectations I’ve realized, can be wrong in the most significant of ways.

First Nations are realizing this. Led by inspiring leaders, like those from Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Residential School Survivors like Ted Quewezance who are here with us tonight, they are applying a process to change community expectations. As a result, they are articulating problems and solutions in a way never seen before and giving granular detail to the health rights First Nations have from living in Canada – which all Canadians share – and the unique Treaty Rights First Nations have as a founding Nation of Canada.

We have a choice. Not of whether change will occur, change will occur regardless. The choice is whether Canada and First Nations will make this change together or apart. The consequences of that choice will shake the very foundations of our health care systems.

Expectations don’t take decades to change. They change in a moment. And as Medicare has proven time and time again, that changes everything.

It is an honour to be the inaugural recipient of this award. I am proud to be Canadian. I am proud of my Indigenous People. Together we can create an incredible future.

Photo: Attawapiskat, Ont. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette


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