Cree Health Services may soon be receiving a long-overdue financial shot in the arm.

That depends, however, on the outcome of a meeting August 26 between the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) and Quebec Health Minister Remy Trudel.

CBHSSJB Chairman Bertie Wapachee has been in round-table discussions with the Ministry of Health and Social Services for close to three years now. The purpose is to identify a lack of funding for programs that he says are standard in the rest of Quebec.

“There is certainly some resolving to do on the part of Quebec for Cree health and social services – we expect nothing less,” he said.

It is a problem that goes back far more than three years – to 1974, to be exact. Section 14 of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was supposed to guarantee full health and social services for the Cree. But with a shortage of doctors, inadequate facilities, and the continued threat of HIV infection and diabetes among the people of Eeyou Istchee, Social Services are once again left holding the short end of the stick.

“The main issue has to be adequate funding for the services that the population requires in the Cree region,” said Wapachee. “Inadequate resources have been a concern for many years; we haven’t had proper staffing, proper facilities, or proper clinics to care for our people. A lot has been missing for all of the community, and especially for the Cree Health Board.” At the time of the Annual General Assembly (AGA) of the Grand Council of the Cree in Eastmain earlier this month, the CBHSSJB presented a current annual operating budget of $50 million, with the prospect of additional funding “subject to ongoing negotiations.” The crisis facing health care in Eeyou Istchee territory has also surfaced in a recent audit.

Outgoing Deputy Grand Chief Mathew Mukash chaired the AGA this year, and responded to a presentation made by the CBHSSJB. Crees have remained divided over the agreement signed with Quebec last February 7, but to Mukash, it very well may play in the community’s favour.

“Negotiating with the government has always been difficult, but in the context of the [AIP] I think [the government] is trying to look good, and I know that there is a real opportunity to capitalize on that,” Mukash said in an interview. “When the government wants to look good, sometimes you have to take advantage of those things.” When Wapachee first started with the Cree Health Board, their global budget was at $36 million. Since then they have increased their funding by $ 15 million, with most of it – if not all of it – coming from the ongoing discussion table. The 42 per cent increase was welcomed, though it fell significantly short of their original projection.

“There has been a small increase, but of course there are still a lot of things left to be implemented. I was hoping to have reached the $80 million mark by now…. It’s taking a long time to solve these issues, and we want to solve them as quickly as possible for the Cree people,” said Wapachi.

Time is not something that the Cree Nation has in abundance. According to a May 2001 CBHSSJB survey, nearly 18 per cent of Crees over 15 had been diagnosed with diabetes. The rate is four times the Canadian average, and has continued to rise over the past year. In 1999, the community of Mistissini had more than 300 people diagnosed with diabetes, up from 223 cases the year before -which meant that 18 per cent of Mistissini residents over 15 has diabetes, one of the highest rates in the world.

The rapid proliferation of the illness prompted the provincial government to provide new programs and new funding in areas like public health, as well as basic transportation, or anything that falls under non-insured health benefits. For Wapachee and the CBHSSJB, this gave them the freedom to start working on other things.

The plan that has now been put before the health minister will fall under a new “global approach” which will only be made public once Trudel arrives in the Cree territory.

And Wapachee sees it as the best chance for both sides to resolve the issues that have been around for over 20 years. “I do feel a sense of being owed something, and I think it’s safe to say that anyone would feel this way had they been in my shoes for the past three years.”