It’s a big country and Ottawa is far, not only geographically but experientially, from many of the places its laws affect. That distance grows ever greater when it comes to First Nations communities.

The cabinet ministers, lawyers, researchers and departmental staff here live in a different world from many Aboriginal Canadians, as do most of us. In 2005, when E. coli poisoned the water of the Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario, some residents were put up in a hotel here, just a few blocks from Parliament Hill, but so often, our decision-makers seldom get such a direct look at the people their policies affect.

UNICEF Canada offers a litany of depressing statistics in its 2009 report, Aboriginal Children’s Health: Leaving No Child Behind.

While the report acknowledges some progress has been made in Aboriginal health, education and housing, the numbers still tell a brutal story of privation within one of the world’s most affluent countries: Infant mortality (three to seven times higher than the national average on reserves), tuberculosis (90 times higher among the Inuit), teen pregnancy (seven times higher) and suicide (twice as high).

And when it comes to influenza A (H1N1), also known as swine flu, the numbers game isn’t any better. In Manitoba, Aboriginal leaders cite an infection rate of 135 per 100,000 people, compared to 20 per 100,000 in Canada as a whole.

While Canada prepares for a nasty flu season this fall, reserves are preparing for potential disaster, aggravated by crowded living conditions, widespread pre-existing respiratory illness and, in some cases, no running water.

In an illustration of the many ways in which the deck is stacked against First Nations people, a controversy over providing hand sanitizer, which contains alcohol, raged among bureaucrats while the virus spread: Which was the bigger problem, swine flu or substance abuse?

The UNICEF report isn’t all gloom, though, and solutions are on offer. Among them, the growing acceptance of Jordan’s Principle, which states that, when the health of a First Nations child is at risk, the level of government that is contacted first pays the bills. Jurisdictional red tape gets sorted out after the problem’s solved.

A sensible idea, which one could imagine guiding all sorts of government action in this constitutionally entangled country, the principle is, sadly, named for a seriously ill Aboriginal boy who died in Manitoba while governments haggled over just whose problem he was.

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