Perception of Indigenous health doesn't match reality, says award-winning anesthesiologist

Alika Lafontaine, an anesthesiologist of Oji-Cree descent hailing from Treaty 4 territory, is being recognized by one of the country's leading institutions for his work as an advocate for Indigenous health.

Lafontaine has been named the recipient of the Emerging Indigenous Leader Award by the Public Policy Forum. Lafontaine said the award was a bit of a surprise.

"I think the recognition reflects some of the work that I've done in Indigenous health, particularly with ensuring that First Nations communities really get back to exercising their treaty right to health," he said.

​Lafontaine, who practices in Alberta, is a member of the Indigenous Health Alliance and former president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada.

He will receive the award at the 30th annual testimonial and dinner awards at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on April 20. 

Lafontaine said Indigenous health rights are often mislabeled. There are negotiated treaty rights and there are also inherent rights, such as the right to privacy and basic care.

"It's always interesting when you look at the perception that First Nations people receive better health care versus the reality we all know," Lafontaine said.

He noted the high rate of HIV among Indigenous people, and said simple things like opportunities to see a doctor about medication and basic services can sometimes be non-existent in Indigenous communities.

"I think the narrative doesn't really match up with reality," he said.

"I think the argument for the treaty right to health as its been presented by government … historically … has been that the only way we can access health is through treaty, and then treaty has always been argued as a set of services that is so much smaller than what it should have been," he said.

"The reality that, say, a northern nursing station in northern Saskatchewan doesn't have the same sort of standards and access to basic health care provision that a town that's 15 to 20 minutes away from a reserve has — that's, I think, a reflection of misrepresentation of inherent and treaty rights."

He noted chiefs in Saskatchewan are starting to see they're receiving less in terms of health care than the rest of Canada. 

"We have a perception that First Nations don't have the right to a lot of inherent and treaty rights," he said.

He says Indigenous communities may have the right to license their own physicians on reserve but those rights have not been exercised. Lafontaine said Indigenous communities still maintain jurisdiction and can exert it outside of existing provincial and federal legislation.

"In that context, I think First Nations really have the flexibility to do things that are different than other parallel systems like medicare," Lafontaine said.