Prime Minister Paul Martin has promised that an additional $700 million directed toward Native health care in the coming years.

“This is a huge moral issue for us,” said Martin at the Sept. 13 meeting on health issues with Canada’s premiers and the heads of five major Aboriginal groups in Ottawa.

Martin committed the cash over the next five years to combat the disproportionately high rate of Aboriginal suicide and diabetes, and generally to attempt to improve the appalling level of health care available to Native communities.

Last spring, Martin promised Native leaders “a full seat at the table” in dealings with the federal government. Despite that promise, they were allotted only a three-hour pre-meeting to raise health issues and concerns before the three-day meeting with the premiers got underway.

The Prime Minister called the conference an “historic opportunity” to improve life in what many Native leaders describe as “Third World conditions.”

“Together, we can and must close the gap in [Native] health status,” said Martin.

“The session was an important opportunity to bring focus to the devastating health status of First Nations peoples,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine. “That is why we presented a comprehensive action plan that includes six elements aimed at transformative change and immediate results. Our plan is supported by the pillars of sustainability and integration to create a system that gives us maximum return on our investments and works to improve the lives of our people and the health care system for all Canadians.”

Health Canada spokesperson Catherine Saunders thinks that the new spending will lend a much-needed helping hand. “This funding is set out for the next five years, and will go a long way in trying to address the health gaps between Aboriginals and nonaboriginals,” she told the Nation. “We’re certainly hoping to make some headway over the next five years in the area of Native health.”

She went on to say that she wasn’t sure how much would be needed to bring Native health indicators up to the Canadian average, but that this was a step in the right direction.

The six elements of the plan involve a sustainable financial base; integrated primary and continuing care; health human resources; public health infrastructure; healing and wellness; and information and research capacity. Martin’s plan contained aspects similar to the AFN’s prescription.

“We are pleased with the response of the Prime Minister to our plan,” said Fontaine. “An investment of $700 million dollars in the key areas of the First Nation Action Plan is a very positive beginning and demonstrates the kind of commitment that we are looking for.”

He was quick, however, to question the prime minister’s promise of a “full seat” in future negotiations.