Indian medicine

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
October 30, 2002

Richmond, B.C. has the healthiest people in Canada, Statistics Canada reports. “Life expectancy in Richmond is the highest in the country, at 81.2 years.”

Unless you’re an Indian.

Indians in Richmond have abysmally shorter life spans – 15. 2 years shorter than that of non-Indians, reports the British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency.

The gap between B.C. Indians and non-Indians is also great in Vancouver – 13.2 years – where Indians live even shorter lives than in Richmond.

And the gap in B.C. is greatest of all in the Simon Fraser region – 16.3 years – where the average Indian life lasts a mere 62.8 years, or 20.6% less than non-Indians.

In contrast to the abysmal health of Indians in these urbanized areas of British Columbia, they positively thrive in remote parts of British Columbia. Indians in the province’s North West region live 75.7 years, just 2.3 years less than non-Indians, and in the Peace Liard region in the province’s northeast, they live 76.5 years, just two years less than non-Indians.

Indians on the whole tend to resemble their ashen stereotype: They are poor specimens of human health, with grim ratings on a wide measure of health criteria when compared to non-natives across the country. Over 60% of natives who live off reserves report at least one chronic condition, for example, and the premature death rate for Manitoba natives is twice that of non-native Manitobans. But Peace Liard Indians live almost as long as Canadians in large regions of the country.

Statistics Canada, in a major analysis entitled The Health of Canada’s Communities, divided the Canadian population into 10 demographic peer groups. Peace Liard Indians not only outlive StatCan’s sickliest peer group – comprised mostly of natives – but they also approach the life spans of non-native Canadians living in northern communities and non-native Canadians living in the rural Maritimes. Access to doctors and hospitals is not a factor determining health differences among different parts of Canada, Statistics Canada determined. Instead, the broad health differences among peer groups stem partly from lifestyle factors, such as smoking and eating, and mostly from factors such as education and affluence, which are associated with empowerment.

Empowerment – having a sense of control over one’s life – leads to vastly superior health, a wealth of studies in Canada and elsewhere suggest. For non-natives, cities tend to be empowering, explaining why city folk – even the very poor in cities – tend to be healthier and to live longer than people in rural regions.

But for natives, cities can often be disempowering. In a study of native people who live off reserves, Statistics Canada assessed the health of natives by three geographic criteria: Those who live in urban parts of the provinces, those who live in rural parts of the provinces, and those who live in the three northern territories: Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. The healthiest natives by far lived in the three territories, where they were among familiar institutions, where they were best able to lead traditional lifestyles, and where they suffered least from racial and other prejudices. In the provinces they fared poorly by comparison, regardless of whether they lived in rural areas or in cities. The better health results in the territories come despite the fact that Indians living in the provinces tend to be better educated and more affluent. Though these are empowering factors, they count less than the empowerment that comes of living fully and freely in a supportive environment.

Peace Liard is among the healthiest native communities in Canada, likely because its economy is fairly well diversified and acts to empower natives. But Peace Liard is an exception. Most native communities – demoralized and heavily dependent on welfare – form the rule. The difference between the best and the worst have little to do with environmental factors or genetic stock and everything to do with the levels of empowerment.

Native lobby groups such as the Assembly of First Nations fight for better health-care facilities, and they fight for speedy land claims settlements to allow them to get out from under the dispiriting welfare system that debilitates them. Their case is strong on both counts, but their health depends more on success in the latter fight.

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