Anishnawbe Health Toronto is getting close to the finish line — it’s just $3.5-million away from its $10-million goal in a fundraising campaign for a state-of-the-art Indigenous health facility that’s set to be built next year in a prime downtown location.
There are a lot of remarkable things about that sentence.
First, after 150 years of colonization, a new health centre that’s specifically designed for Indigenous people will finally be available in a city with an Indigenous population estimated to be at least 70,000. For years, AHT has run programs scattered across three locations, in outdated and overcrowded buildings that were never intended to house traditional Indigenous health care.
Second, the new health centre and community hub will be constructed on 2.4 acres in the West Don Lands, on land that was part of the Pan Am Games athletes’ village and purchased for a nominal fee from Ontario.
Third, the largest donors to come forward to date are Alexandra and Brad Krawczyk, who gave $2 million to the fundraising campaign. Alexandra’s father, the late Barry Sherman, campaigned to bring cheaply priced generic medicine to HIV patients in Africa and was the head of the multinational pharmaceutical firm Apotex.
Like her father, Alexandra has lived a life immersed in health care. She went to nursing school in Toronto but chose to do her residency in Fort Albany First Nation along the James Bay coast. The fly-in community was home to the notorious St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, where there was a homemade electric chair to punish the students.
Alexandra remembers when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to the community in early 2013 to listen to testimony from survivors and witnesses.
“I witnessed it for two days and I spent some time with Justice Murray Sinclair,” she said in an interview. The experience changed her.
So when Sen. Linda Frum reached out to let Alexandra know about the epic plans for a new Indigenous health centre, she and Adam Minsky, the CEO of UJA Toronto, reached out to AHT executive director Joe Hester. “We followed up, came down for a tour, met the staff, and we both said, ‘This aligns with our values entirely,’” she recalled.
It’s beyond inspiring to think that people from all walks of life are coming together to get this done, under the guidance of Andre Morriseau, the Anishnawbe Health Foundation board chair and Fort William First Nation member. Large funders for the centre are as diverse as Toronto, including the Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre, the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada and the Toronto Diocese of the Anglican Church — not to mention a $100,000 gift from a former Anishnawbe Health client.
Canada has a woeful history of two-tier health care for Indigenous people, rooted in racism and dating back to the era of government-funded Indian Residential Schools, where 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were abused over the course of more than a century. Another arm of this genocidal act was the creation of segregated Indian hospitals, 22 of which existed by the 1960s.
The intergenerational trauma that resulted from them tore families apart and led to a host of health problems. We see the threads of trauma in the fact that nearly 90 per cent of Toronto’s Indigenous people live in poverty, are more likely than others to be homeless, unemployed or have not completed high school.
Anishnawbe Health says 65 per cent of Indigenous adults in Toronto have at least one chronic health condition such as arthritis, diabetes, asthma, heart problems. Some suffer mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
But when Indigenous people try to access health care, they are often treated differently. One only needs to look at what happened to Brian Sinclair, the First Nations man who was ignored as he waited for 34 hours in a Winnipeg hospital emergency room. He died waiting in his wheelchair.
Having one health care centre to call our own should be the standard — a place where, when you walk in the door, where you are not judged.
People should be treated equally and with kindness. When you are sick, you need to be treated kindly, and if you are Indigenous, you need to be surrounded in traditional healing, where the spirit is treated along with the physical self.
The new centre will have a traditional sweat lodge, counselling space for sharing circles, and even a kitchen to teach healthy cooking skills.
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It’s been a long and difficult road, Hester noted, and sometimes it felt like all the pieces weren’t going to come together.
But now they are, and in a part of the city that is seeing a rebirth, a reimagining of what Toronto could be.