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Today is National Aboriginal Day

So, since here in Canada today is National Aboriginal Day I thought I would speak a bit about diabetes in Canada's Indigenous communities. First, there are three different groups understood as 'Aboriginal' in Canada: First Nations, Inuit and Métis. I know of a lot of documents relating to statistics and understandings of wellbeing from First Nations perspectives, but there seems to be much less information regarding Inuit and Métis peoples. Contrary to the many myths purported by Hollywood and pop culture there are many different communities of First Peoples in North America. However, there are some general similarities between various First Nations perpectives of health. The most glaring difference is that while mainstream medicine sees only the physical; while First Nations understand that wellbeing includes the physical, mental, emotional and the spiritual. That's is just the surface of differences, but I think it is enough that you can see the two views, although both concerned with wellbeing, come to this understanding with very different concepts of what is worthy of focus. (If you wish to read more, I think that the First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey: The People's Report has a nicely illustrated outline that goes through the differences and similarities of First Nations and Western understandings of health.)

As you can imagine, study after study illustrates that misunderstandings and racism are commonplace in Aboriginal peoples encounters with mainstream health services. I don't think it takes a genious to see that if Western medicine only considers the disease, than it is ill equipped to understand the various cultural and racial issues at play in these encounters. Take for example Catherine T. Elliott's narrative:

When I was a medical student, one of my teachers warned me to be wary of misunderstandings that could cloud my judgment. He described a case in which the powerful negative image of “drunken Indian” impaired a physician’s ability to assess and treat a man with diabetic ketoacidosis. The aboriginal patient waited in a wheelchair in the waiting room for several hours until the next physician came on shift and discovered the error.

While, she goes on to note:

In medical school, one of the first “facts” learned about Canada’s aboriginal peoples is that they have poor health status and experience substandard social and economic conditions. Many of us do not come to understand the historical and social contexts of these facts. This can lead to a sense that “being aboriginal” means having poor health and social conditions. This belief might leave us vulnerable to adopting common social stereotypes.

The practice of conflating health outcomes with cultural norms, when they are better explained by social, political, and economic factors, has a long history in Canada. It can occur when members of one group become marginalized and impoverished, and their behaviour in response to the marginalization is deemed “part of their culture.” For example, in the early 1900s when First Nations in British Columbia were separated from their land and resources, their ways of life changed from migratory to sedentary. Previously healthy living conditions became unsanitary, and high mortality rates from infectious disease ensued. The historical record suggests that First Nations themselves were blamed for their poor health, without an appreciation of the social effects of this dramatic change in way of life. Poor health was deemed “an inherent part of indigenous lifestyles.”


These last points, I think, are especially pertinent to diabetes. With colonization came the stress of displacement, genocide and residential schools (also see: Where are the children?) and a shift from traditional diets to Western foods- processed, rich in carbohydrates and fats. Diabetes, in this case, is not just an illness of the body, but also one of colonization... but is also now one of epidemic proportions in Native communities.

Consider these research findings:

"Diabetes among the non-reserve Aboriginal population was most prevalent in the North American Indian population, where 8.3% of the population age 15 and over was diagnosed with diabetes, as opposed to 6% of the Métis population and 2.3% of the Inuit population.

Rates of diabetes have risen for North American Indian adults not living on reserve since 1991 when the rate was 5.3%. Rates for the Métis and Inuit changed only slightly: 5.5% for Métis and 1.9% for Inuit adults in 1991.

According to Health Canada, there is evidence that the prevalence of diabetes is higher among the Aboriginal population living on-reserve. (Health Canada 2000) If this group were included, it is likely that the rate of diabetes for the total Aboriginal population (both those living in reserve and non-reserve areas combined) would be higher than 7%." (StatsCan)

More recent statistics note the prevalence of diabetes in First Nations adults is closer to 14.5%. While "among First Nations adults with diabetes, 78.2% have Type 2 diabetes, 9.9% have Type 1 diabetes and 9.8% are in the pre-diabetic stage." (RHS: The People's Report)
The average age of First Nations youth diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes is now 11 years. (RHS: The People's Report)

In research conducted between 1980-2005: "The prevalence of diabetes increased over the study period from 9.5% to 20.3% among First Nations women and from 4.9% to 16.0% among First Nations men. Among non-First Nations people, the prevalence increased from 2.0% to 5.5% among women and from 2.0% to 6.2% among men. By 2005, almost 50% of First Nations women and more than 40% of First Nations men aged 60 or older had diabetes, compared with less than 25% of non-First Nations men and less than 20% of non-First Nations women aged 80 or older." (Dyck, Osgood, Lin, Gao, & Stang in Canadian Medical Association Journal)

"In addition to high rates, according to Health Canada, diabetes is a significant concern for the Aboriginal population because of 'early onset, greater severity at diagnosis, high rates of complications, lack of accessible services, increasing trends, and increasing prevalence of risk factors for a population already at risk.' (Health Canada 2000)." (StatsCan)

Below, I have embedded a National Film Board of Canada short-film by Brion Whitford, an Ojibway man living with Type 2 diabetes. The piece follows Brion as he learns to deal with his diabetes by learning about his heritage. For various reasons, the film is sometimes hard to watch, but I think the lessons described and put forth are quite honest and touching.

(PLEASE NOTE: some of the scenes can be difficult to watch, especially if you or a loved one has diabetes and/or experienced colonial traumas. The film starts with Brion losing kidney function and having problems with circulation, in addition to struggling to find balance and health with diabetes. Also, there is one discussion where a man talks about losing his mother to diabetes and it is somewhat graphic... Just thought I should mention...)


Finally, I realize that in discussing illness there is a tendency to focus on deficit. I think it is important to remind people that (like all groups) while there are negatives there co-exists many positive facets to Native American communities. To this end, I would like finish here by sharing this most recent post by Adrienne over at (one of my favourite blogs!) Native Appropriations: Between Pageantry and Poverty: Representing Ourselves

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