Physicians Slam Closure of Aboriginal Health Organization

April 18, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
A woman speaks at the NAHO National Conference on Aboriginal Health in 2009. NAHO has been told by the federal government that its funding will be cut and the organization closed by June. (Courtesy of NAHO)

The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada is decrying the federal government’s plan to close the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO), and is calling for the formation of an alternative body to take its place.

Since 2000, NAHO has been collecting research on everything from substance abuse and suicide to high rates of diabetes and infectious diseases, providing a valuable base of knowledge to draw from in advancing the health of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples.

The college says that given the diversity of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples and the complex factors that perpetuate chronic illnesses, success in aboriginal health is predicated on a continuous and stable entity such as NAHO.

“The state of Aboriginal health is a national embarrassment and leadership is needed now more than ever,” said Thomas Dignan, MD, chair of the college’s aboriginal health advisory committee.

NAHO was informed shortly after the release of the federal budget earlier this month that its entire funding—nearly $5 million—would be cut, and the organization closed by June 30.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has said the decision was due in part to “governance challenges,” noting that major First Nations organizations had also withdrawn support for NAHO.

“Health Canada worked with NAHO in an attempt to resolve these issues but, unfortunately, they were not addressed,” Aglukkaq said in a statement.

Last November, a joint letter to Aglukkaq from the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council called for NAHO to be restructured and replaced with “a new governance model” that would separately represent the distinct needs of the three organizations.

“It is clear that the only viable option for advancing First Nations, Inuit, and Metis health is to wind down NAHO and work with us to create three legal entities that can be developed as separate, arms-length centres of excellence that are results-based and accountable to the respective peoples,” the letter reads.

The organizations are proposing an organizational structure consisting of three distinct legal entities that would serve Metis, First Nations, and Inuit peoples respectively. Besides being more efficient, they claim such a structure would lead to “cost efficiencies and savings.”

For its part, the College of Physicians and Surgeons is urging the government to “provide Canadians with an alternative body possessing a robust governance structure to continue the work of [NAHO’s] critical research hub and resource.”

“Organizational struggles aside, NAHO played an important role in advancing aboriginal health research,” said Dignan.

CEO Andrew Padmos said NAHO has made advancing the health of Aboriginal Peoples “a strategic priority.”

“We hope that the federal government and health care stakeholders commit to ensuring that NAHO’s research legacy is sustained and that improving aboriginal health remains a national priority, both now and in the years ahead,” Padmos said.

In its 12 years of operation, NAHO’s vast collection of research has become a major resource for information on aboriginal health.

The organization claims that last year alone there were over 640,000 downloads of publications from the NAHO website, and 250,000 publications were sent to health care providers, communities, and individuals. The website is also used by researchers, health care providers, and government.

Over the next two months, NAHO will seek to distribute the collection among universities or health institutions to ensure it can be preserved.