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Health crisis shaking the foundations of Native nations.

EDMONTON

The University of Alberta hosted the Forum on Aboriginal Health Research on March 14 and 15. Several talks and lectures over the two days were designed to raise awareness of the extent of the Native health crisis and the efforts being undertaken to address it. Internationally acclaimed respiratory health scientist Dr. Malcolm King organized the event at his home university, which featured Dr. Jeff Reading, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto and a member of the Mohawk Nation.

Last summer, Parliament passed legislation to create the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to develop effective medical research in order to improve the health of all Canadians. Thirteen areas were identified (Native health, cancer, gender, aging and genetics, among others) that require their own scientific research bodies. The Native research component is the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples' Health (IAPH).

Aboriginal people are represented at the highest levels of the organization. Dr. King of Six Nations, Ont. is a member of the CIHR governing council and Dr. Reading is the scientific director of the IAPH.

Both men acknowledged that Aboriginal health in Canada is in a state of crisis. Reading pointed out that "Native Canadians have poorer health than non-Natives according to virtually every wellness indicator (including diabetes, obesity, smoking, life expectancy, HIV-AIDS, etc). Diseases are being contracted at younger and younger ages, and with the baby boom in Indian country showing no signs of abating, the potential for even greater crisis in Native health increases continually."

Mainstream models cannot be applied to many Native health issues. Reading said smoking is a good example.

"Tobacco has a different cultural meaning and history in the Native experience, and as a result, its misuse is not seen as negatively as it is in mainstream society." To provide some comparisons, he said that when tobacco use was at its height in the 1950s, 55 per cent of all Canadians smoked. The present rate among young Natives is 72 per cent.

"Our rate of smoking is almost 50 per cent higher today than the overall Canadian rate was 40 years ago. Clearly, different strategies must be employed to deal with the problem in the different cultures."

Another example is Type II diabetes. Fifty years ago diabetes was unknown in Aboriginal communities. Now almost half of all Natives over 50 are afflicted.

"Lifestyles and diets am changing so quickly that often health indicators are moving in one direction for mainstream Canada and the other way for Native Canada."

Research must be sensitive to the needs of the communities it is meant to serve and it must benefit these communities in tangible ways. Reading made a distinction between good and bad research.

"The practices of some researchers in the past have created distrust in Aboriginal communities." In many cases, researchers collected data from communities and disappeared. The researcher's career was advanced while the community derived no benefit.

The CIHR aims to avoid bad research by ensuring that it results in real, positive change.

"One of our functions is to act as an intermediary body of dedicated health professionals to bring researchers together with Native leaders and communities. It is important to ensure that researchers are accountable to the Native community they are working with," said Reading. He pointed to the work done by Dr. Hegel of the University of Western Ontario as an example of particularly good research.

"Dr. Hegel isolated a gene among members of the Sandy Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario that predisposed people to diabetes. Discoveries like this are necessary in order to find a cure for diabetes among Aboriginal people and to improve the lives of many of our people."

Responding to suggestions that the significant resources required to respond to the health needs of Native people, given their relatively small population, is somehow unfair to non-Natives, Dr. Reading used the analogy of a natural disaster.

"If an earthquake hit Canada's West Coast and parts of B.C. fell into the Pacific Ocean, would anyone question the equity of sending aid to that part of the country? Absolutely not. In times of crisis, the distribution of resources is not an equity issue. Spreading resources evenly over the entire population does not make sense when some groups are in crisis. And make no mistake, Native health is in a state of crisis."

During a talk with a group of medical, nursing and science students, Reading stressed the need for communities to encourage academic excellence among their young people.

"We need more Aboriginal people studying at institutes of higher learning. We need to colonize these institutions in order to get what we want. We've been colonized and it's time for us to teach the colonizers a lesson or two."

The University of Alberta's director of Native student services, Lewis Cardinal, said that it is important to foster mutually beneficial partnerships between institutions and Native communities. Native students gain education, training and make important professional and personal contacts. At the same time, "universities benefit from the presence of Aboriginal people. We have an opportunity to acculturate institutions towards the Indigenous world view. Ceremonies like talking circles derive from consensus-based Aboriginal traditions that could be valuable models for universities to follow."
COPYRIGHT 2001 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Reading, Chris
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:866
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