Native leaders waving signs rallied outside the prime minister’s residence two weeks ago to protest their exclusion from the first ministers’ summit on health care. Aboriginals were shut out of the meeting at 24 Sussex Drive that ended with a healthcare deal worth billions of dollars. About 60 protesters representing aboriginals, health and labour groups gathered behind barricades across the street from the prime minister’s home. “The fact that (Chretien) is excluding us demonstrates that he’s continuing to hold a colonialist mentality,” said Matthew Coon Come, head of the Assembly of First Nations.

Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert stopped to talk to the protesters. As the crowd cheered, Calvert promised to do his best to protect medicare.

Chretien insists that meetings of first ministers should be limited to provincial and territorial premiers.

He says he has consulted with native leaders on how to close the gap between aboriginal health standards and those taken for granted by most Canadians. He met privately with Coon Come for 45 minutes to discuss such concerns.

Coon Come says native leaders need a real voice in such talks, including a place at the first ministers’ table.

Northwest Territories Premier Stephen Kakfwi recalled former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s bold approach.

“At a number of conferences he had . . . aboriginals sitting with him, sitting with the premiers on national TV. That’s courage and leadership. The federal government wants everybody else to be accountable, and I say ‘Fine.’ Let’s let the federal government be accountable for its responsibility for aboriginal people.”

Native health still lags shamefully behind, Kakfwi said. “We’re living in Third World conditions.

“Surely to God somebody will have the sense to say: ‘Let’s invite the (native) leaders. Let’s talk, let’s partner, figure out what should be done.’ Its very straightforward.”

While the health status of aboriginal people has improved in recent decades, wide gaps persist.

-In 2002, a survey found that just 38 per cent of reserve residents reported very good to excellent health, compared with 61 per cent of all Canadians in 2000-01.

-Native people report diabetes at two to three times the national rate.

-Tuberculosis rates are eight to 10 times the national average.

-Aboriginals living in the North or remote areas are up to three times more likely to kill themselves.

-Infant deaths in native communities are up to three times the Canadian average.

-Native people over the age of 15 are about twice as likely to smoke.

The only message to draw from Chretien’s refusal to include native leaders is that Ottawa plans to shortchange them, Coon Come charged. “First Nations must be directly involved in the discussions,” he said. “When health services are done for us, they fail.”