By Cal Braid
Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Alberta Health Services recently signed a new three-year agreement to continue its long-standing, collaborative partnership with the Alberta Native Friendship Centres Association (ANFCA).
“This partnership is part of our larger commitment to ensuring positive health outcomes and access to culturally safe health care for all First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples,” Minister of Health Jason Copping said in a release. “By creating meaningful relationships and listening to our Indigenous communities, we are confident that we can create partnerships that improve the health and wellness of Indigenous Peoples who reside in Alberta and we can do it together.”
ANFCA is mandated to support 21 member friendship centres across the province. These autonomous centres respond to needs as identified by the communities they serve; the range of programs and services offered varies greatly and includes accredited alternative schools, daycares, youth centres, employment programs, homeless shelters, cultural camps, socio-economic, health promotion and prevention and life skills programs.
Jeanette MacInnis, acting executive director for ANFCA said, “The old agreement that we had with AHS expired in 2015. When I came on, I said, `Okay, so what changed in this agreement and what has transpired in that time?’ And nothing had changed or transpired,” she said with a laugh. “I said, `We need a stronger agreement and something with some action in it, and once we have an agreement we can develop a work plan and see where the needs of our
21 friendship centre agencies see the greatest need.’ The pandemic kind of interfered in getting the agreement to where it is now, because as you can imagine AHS was completely overrun.”
Most Indigenous people in Alberta reside off-reserve, according to MacInnis.
“I did sit on a number of committees with AHS, including the Indigenous Health Core. Being one of the lone voices there for people who reside off-reserve, or off-settlement, is hard sometimes.
Seventy per cent of Indigenous people in Alberta actually reside off-reserve. Just to give you an idea, last year our friendship centres served over 200,000 people between 21 of them.”
The work that friendship centres do is often related to health care.
“Just to show you the breadth of services, not all of them are health programs, but they’re definitely core needs of people,” she explained. “So, whether it’s food security, mental health support, youth programming, or making sure elders weren’t in isolation throughout the pandemic, all the hard work that friendship centres do might not be primary care where they have a doctor on site, but it’s definitely health care.” Many of the centres have a nurse visit the site once a week.
The renewed agreement may assist in addressing racism concerns.
“There are a lot of things that can happen with our friendship centres where Indigenous people feel safe and welcome. Kind of preemptive healthcare services or early intervention. Working with AHS we’re going to have a place to talk about what’s happening in our communities that’s not going to be brushed off. I find right now that the complaint system is not addressing the racism and the lack of services. So, working with AHS, we kind of have a direct conduit to say, `This is happening in the community repeatedly; what we going to do?”’
She said that during the pandemic, many of the friendship centres had vaccination centres on-site and AHS began to show up regularly at those sites to administer doses to those who wanted them. While the agreement doesn’t help the centres monetarily, or turn them into primary care sites, it gives ANFCA a voice at the discussion table to address specific areas of need or concern. She noted that First Nations have an agreement with AHS, as do Metis settlements and the Metis Nation of Alberta, and nothing that the ANFCA is doing is going to infringe on any of those relationships with AHS.
“But as the largest frontline agency for Indigenous people in Alberta, we needed our own agreement,” she said. “We’re all about respectful relationships and we’re hoping this agreement will build on that to address the needs of urban Indigenous people within the health care system.”
At the friendship centre, the onsite staff are skilled at helping with a variety of needs. Some counsellors are available but no primary care generally exists at the centre. On a daily basis, the centres deal with mental health crises, assisting people with injuries, clients seeking detox, or people suffering from abuse.
“All of our centres deal with that kind of stuff every day.
Every day. Whether it’s flood, fire or pandemic, most people show up at the friendship centre.”
Cal Braid is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with the LETHBRIDGE HERALD.
The LJI is a federally funded program. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.