Erwin Malzer has been familiar with the dismal health care plight of rural remote First Nations communities for most of his life.
From growing up and starting his career on the prairies, to moving to Kelowna from Vancouver 12 years ago, Malzer found himself in a position to be a part of the health care renewal process across B.C. for those communities as chair of the Interior Health board.
With his term as chair coming to an end this month, Malzer was presented with a traditional blanket at the Dec. 7 board meeting from representatives of the Seven Nations executive committee for the Interior region, which oversees 54 aboriginal communities within the IH region that stretches across the southern B.C. Interior from 100 Mile House to the U.S. border
The gift presentation was the Seven Nations executive's way of showing their appreciation for his efforts to take up their health care plight up close and personal.
"We presented a traditional blanket, which in our culture is a gift of high honour, to thank him for the time spent with us and being open to building relationships to lead towards addressing the health care gaps in our remote communities," said Ko'wantco Shackelly-Michel, chair of the Seven Nations board who lives near Lytton.
"We wrap that blanket (around the recipient) to show respect and appreciation and to show we care for and love that person."
While the presentation was emotional for Malzer, Shackelly-Michel said it reflected how he made the effort to pay more than just lip service to the needs of aboriginal communities within the IH region.
She said he actually took the time to travel to some of these remote villages in the Fraser Canyon and Shuswap areas to see first-hand, accompanied by Chris Mazurkewich, president and chief executive officer of Interior Health, what it's like to live in a community that has no Internet wi-fi service or is readily accessible for any health care resources.
"I think that was an important step for him to take because it gave him a hands-on feeling of the health care gaps for many of our people. I think it was a learning education for everyone at Interior Health, providing a greater awareness of our culture, languages, our differences, and the isolated areas many of us live in," said Shackelly-Michel.
For Malzer, he frankly says First Nations people living in remote areas are among the worst served of any particular population group in B.C., a similar theme that is pervasive across Canada.
"That is why the province made it a priority to bring change to that reality, to begin working towards minimizing some of those health care disparities, to start providing better health care option outcomes," Malzer said.
He said the remoteness aspect hit home for he and Mazurkewich when their vehicle suffered a flat tire while driving on a backcountry road. "It was a bit of an eye-opener because there was no cell access so we couldn't call anyone for help," he said.
As an important first step in what will be a long process of health care service improvements, under Malzer's chairmanship tenure Interior Health reached a partnership accord with the Seven Nations representatives to actively engage moving forward to seek out health care solutions.
"We as Interior Health take out accountability to make improvements very seriously, and I think they recognize that and it has led to some frank and open discussions about how to move forward," Malzer said. "That process will continue."
He said the destitute situation facing aboriginal people across Canada was something that has gained attention through the truth and reconciliation process between First Nations and the federal government.
"There is a growing awareness of the damage that has been caused from government policies in the past that will take six or seven generations to undo that harm," Malzer said.
"The living conditions even back then for many of the bands was just dismal and the remote conditions so many of them did and still live under. From a B.C. health care perspective, we have an obligation to correct that, but it will be a challenge."
Malzer added from his visits to remote communities, he said the consistent message he was left with was how extremely tolerant, respectful and quite modest the residents were about their expectations for improvement in health care services.
"You know how it can be for many of us, how grumpy we get having to wait an extra 10 minutes to have an x-ray done. First Nations people as a general rule have been extremely modest in their expectation levels despite being among the least well served regarding health care services," Malzer said.