Book by Yvonne Boyer - Moving Aboriginal Health Forward: Discarding Canada's Legal Barriers

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Aboriginal health continues to be a national shame

Moving Aborginal Health Forward by Yvonne Boyer


Moving Aboriginal Health Forward: Discarding Canada's Legal Barriers

By Yvonne Boyer

Purich Publishing Limited

As I continue my research into the links between residential schools and Canada's segregated Indian hospitals, I've had the good fortune to discover Ottawa lawyer Yvonne Boyer's recently published work, Moving Aboriginal Health Forward: Discarding Canada's Legal Barriers, which covers much of the same ground from a legal and constitutional angle. She makes a strong case for linking Aboriginal health to laws and statutes of the land and the attitudes those engender. If Aboriginal peoples are considered second-class citizens and deliberately kept at a distance and disadvantage, their health will continue to suffer. As a Métis who also has worked in the health care sector and holds the Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Health and Wellness at Brandon University, she is well equipped to serve as a guide through this important and perplexing history.

As she says in the introduction: "The failure of Aboriginal health policies resides in the false assumptions that Aboriginal people were biologically predetermined to vanish, were inherently unhealthy and inferior, and that their culture causes them to pursue harmful lifestyles." She goes on to highlight those determinants responsible for the bad health of Aboriginal peoples in Canada today, pointing out the significance of stress and poverty: "The body breaks down as stresses compound and intensify. Under these conditions, the options for sustaining healthy lifestyles and the ability to acquire help in health crises narrow. Illness and death are far more likely for those who are poor and marginalized. People who are not marginalized, who are not living in poverty, who enjoy adequate housing, who are educated, and whose cultural identity is not under attack have better states of health."

Housing, water quality, geographic remoteness, environmental conditions (polluted air and water, for example) and the attitudes of government play upon the health of First Nations. The latter is well expressed by comments Prime Minister Stephen Harper made to the G20 in 2009: "We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them."

The PM, obviously, needs a history lesson and a look at the statistics, which, Boyer observes, clearly indicate that mortality rates on reserves have climbed to seven times the national average; Inuit women live 14 fewer years than other women in Canada; the suicide rate for young Aboriginal females is three times higher than the national average; and Aboriginal women have five times as much chance of dying by violence. And, in terms of chronic disease, one example will suffice: "In Canada, the rate of diabetes among Aboriginal people is three to five times higher than in the general population."

In addition to naming the negative determinants in Aboriginal health, Boyer also discusses misconceptions about traditional medicine. She points out Aboriginal societies were acknowledged to be in good health by the new arrivals and had developed healing practices over the millennia.

An entire chapter is devoted to the healing practices among First Nations, Inuit and Métis - from sweat lodges, music, dance and excellent midwifery to medicines, unique belief systems that included the supernatural but might well be classed under the healing powers of faith.

When Europeans entered the picture all this changed rapidly. The deliberate killing off of the buffalo made the Aboriginal peoples of the Plains weak and easily manipulated, reducing the great chiefs to beggars on behalf of their people. Competition and regulations limited access to game; and government efforts to effect a shift from hunting to agriculture were half-hearted at best. Poverty, hunger and the stresses of displacement, persecution and humiliation played havoc with immune systems. By 1924, Aboriginals in B.C., amounting to 1/22nd of the overall population, accounted for one quarter of the deaths. And in 1934, the Canadian Tuberculosis Association would admit that the diagnostic, treatment and prevention procedures available to the white population had not been made available to the Aboriginal peoples.

As Boyer puts it: "In other words, health policies were geared toward protecting the good health of non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal women have always faced social, economic, political and cultural changes that negatively affected health, cultural identity, and social and family structures.

"Years of assimilation have led to the medicalization of birthing and the decline of traditional midwifery practice."

All of this was compounded by the residential school experience that affected at least four generations. The schools effectively destroyed languages and culture, spread disease, and provided an education in fear, brutality and self-loathing.

If you were lucky enough to escape the residential school via the Indian hospitals, you stood a good chance of being subjected to gratuitous drug and surgical experiments, forced sterilization, and electric shock treatment designed to destroy the short-term memory of sexual abuse.

I don't have time to go into the legal determinants of Aboriginal health Boyer so painstakingly addresses. Suffice to say, this is an important book that needs a broad audience.

Racism and the colonial practices and attitudes about which the prime minister is in denial are alive and well, as witnessed by the continual murder of Aboriginal women along the Highway of Tears in B.C. and the police practice of leaving Aboriginal men to freeze to death outside prairie cities.

Gary Geddes's most recent works are Drink the Bitter Root: A writer's search for justice and redemption in Africa and selected poems called What Does A House Want?