The state of health and health care for Canadian Aboriginal people is currently not improving, “Canadian Aboriginals tend to bear a disproportionate burden of illness; an outcome linked to their economic and social conditions [and] oppression” (Newbold 1998). European contact would forever change the course of life for the Aboriginals and their communities in Canada. It was only after the encounter between the old world and new world that two completely separate ecosystems had interaction between each other. Both worlds changed in radical ways through people, plants, animals, varmints and pathogens, this is known today as the “Columbian Exchange”. The New pathogens introduced to the Indigenous people who had no immunity, caused major depopulation up to 80 – 90% during the 1500’s.
This completely changed the Indigenous people and posed as a massive threat to extinction of their population and culture. Contact between the Canadian Aboriginals and European voyagers brought in a mass amount of deadly and infectious diseases. Some of the diseases included smallpox, typhoid, the bubonic plague, influenza, mumps, measles, whooping cough, and later on cholera, malaria, and scarlet fever. Smallpox was a virgin soil epidemic, meaning that it was the first outbreak ever to the population that has had no previous experience with it. The Aborigines of the new world had no immunity to smallpox and the entire population was in danger of extinction. At around that time smallpox had a very high mortality rate which broke down the Aboriginal communities social mechanisms. This brought forth the break down of social the devices which were built within the Aboriginal culture, because the people were unable to hunt and gather food for the elders.
This caused great knowledge loss as the elders in the Aboriginal community would perish from the disease. The greatest example of this is when Spanish explorer Cortez defeated the Moctezuma at Tenochtitlan. Cortez, had only 500 soldiers going up against the Aztec population of 200,000. When the battle began Cortez surely should have been defeated but it was not the strength of his army but the diseases they had brought with them that defeated the Moctezuma. Smallpox and the other various diseases brought over from the old world to the new world contributed to millions of deaths, severely diminishing communities, and it some cases erasing populations and communities completely. The disease was not controlled until the 1870’s when vaccination campaigns were introduced and implemented.
After the epidemic of contagious diseases had slowed the Canadian Aboriginals were in the midst of assimilation, residential schools were established in the mid 1850’s to the 1990’s. Residential school were implemented by the Canadian government to assimilate Aboriginal people into the dominant society. The Aboriginal children removed from their communities and placed in the Residential schools. “Children as young as three to age eighteen were removed from their homes, mostly forcibly, and placed in boarding schools, where they stayed isolated from their family, community, culture, and the rest of Canadian society” (Barton, Sylvia S., Thommasen, Harvey V.,Tallio, Bill ,Zhang, William, Michalos, Alex C. 2001 pg. 295). Residential schools assimilated Aboriginal populations, however in doing so drastically reduced the health of the children being forced to attend these schools. Children were beaten, raped and starved while attending these schools leaving them physically and mentally scarred for life.
“Children who attended these schools, in particular, suffered from the loss of culture, identity, and language as residential school life altered the traditional ways of Aboriginal peoples and broke up traditional ways of Aboriginal family life. In addition to physical, sexual, mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse, many children who attended residential schools were exposed to unhealthy environmental conditions, as well as malnutrition. Low self-esteem and self-concept problems emerged as children were taught that their own culture was inferior and uncivilized, and it is believed that as a result, many residential school survivors suffer from low self-respect, and long-term emo- tional and psychological effects” (Barton, Sylvia S., Thommasen, Harvey V.,Tallio, Bill ,Zhang, William, Michalos, Alex C. 2001 pg. 296).
The main aspect of the Residential schools was to make the children abandon their heritage and traditions taught to them by their Aboriginal communities. This is the most significant reason why today’s Aboriginal youth is confused about their culture and heritage. If the children were not separated from these traditions the Aboriginal youth may not have been so vulnerable to substance abuse and other from of health constraints.
Canada in its present day does not have diseases like smallpox to destroy. Aboriginal populations, also Residential school have been eliminated and no longer assimilate the Aboriginal youth. Still, the deteriorating health conditions for the Aboriginal community are dangerously high. This is mainly because of poor quality of living conditions, very limited access to doctors or healthcare centers, and the major diseases that affect the modern world today.
The Aboriginals that live in highly populated urban areas still have poor quality living standards. Nearly two thirds of the Aboriginal population lives in the western part of Canada, the majority being in 4 or 5 cities. The issues that are considered social detriments to Aboriginals in these regions are education, health care, employment, Aboriginal status, social exclusion, unemployment rates and job security. Society’s negative attitude towards Aboriginal people has been a significant link between their living conditions and the overall quality of life. As stated by Hanselmann “In spite of the size of the urban Aboriginal population…[the] discussion about treaties, self-government, finance, housing, and other issues focus exclusively on First Nation communities and rural areas”. This is a problem because the majority of the Aboriginal population is left out of the equation, “it ignores the urban realities… [and] an acute public policy [should] therefore exist for broadening of perspectives to include not just on-reserve Aboriginal communities but also urban communities” (Hanselmann 2001 pg. 1).
The Canadian Aboriginal populations living in urban areas have been exposed to worse living conditions, also “aboriginal families are over twice as likely to be lone parent families, and more likely to experience domestic violence” (Hanselmann 2001 pg. 4). Lone parents tend to have lower living conditions, therefore lowering the quality of health for Aboriginals. Emotional stress and poverty are common factors among single parent families; these cause children to have lower social capital because they are unable to be active to develop social skills. Consequently, children with a single parent will likely be subject to psychiatric disorders, social problems, and academic difficulties, which all can lead to further health problems and issues.
Another major aspect regarding health and the quality of life of Canadian
Aboriginal communities is education. In a study done by Michael Mendelson he states “The category “less than high school”…the Aboriginal population fared much worse than the total population, with at least 54 percent failing to complete high school compared to 35 percent in the population as a whole” (Mendelson 2006 pg. 10). Urban populations of Aboriginals have more individual without the education of grade 12 then the rest of the country. Education is important to the quality of life for Aboriginal communities because “Aboriginal males and females contingent on whether or not they earn a high school diploma, attend technical school or go to university…results show that an Aboriginal male who drops out gives up over $0.5 million…[and a] female can earn over $1 million by obtaining a high school diploma” (Mendelson 2006 pg. 8-9). This can better the quality of living for Aboriginals through better health care and living conditions.
Living conditions as stated before can severely decrease the health and quality of life of Aboriginal communities, but it is not the only factor. Aboriginal people have a high susceptibility to chronic diseases and HIV/AIDS causing a higher mortality rate, higher suicide rate, and the reason for high alcohol and drug abuse. The Aboriginal people of Canada “bear a disproportionately larger burden of disease and die a decade earlier than the average population”. This is a shocking reality but not more then knowing the mortality rate for children of Aboriginal decent, “the infant mortality rate for Aboriginals is double the national average…they experience high rates of infections, diabetes, substance abuse, renal disease, mental illness, and suicide” (Sin, D., Wells, H., Svenson, L., & Man, P. 2002) .
The two leading diseases that are currently affecting the Aboriginal population are cardiovascular disease/tuberculosis and diabetes. Cardiovascular diseases like tuberculosis among Aboriginal people are “more at risk than other Canadians of getting [a tuberculosis] infection. Some of the root causes are related to poor socio-economic conditions where they live” (Health Canada 2010). This is because Aboriginal people have significantly higher rates of smoking, glucose intolerance and obesity. Type 2 diabetes is a major problem among the Aboriginal youth and is increasing at a rapid rate.
Health Canada says, “First Nations on reserve(s) have a rate of diabetes three to five times higher than that of other Canadians. Rates of diabetes among the Inuit are expected to rise significantly in the future given that risk factors such as obesity, physical inactivity, and unhealthy eating patterns are high” (Health Canada 2011). A reason for the high levels of diabetes in Aboriginal communities is because there is low participation in physical activities and traditional food is not consumed as much. Cardiovascular/Tuberculosis disease and diabetes considerably decrease the health and quality of life of the Aboriginal population.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) are a very dangerous and major health concern for the Aboriginal population. HIV if left untreated will cause AIDS. HIV attacks the immune system, as the illness progresses it results in chronic and deadly infections. Health Canada states “HIV severely weakens the immune system, leaving people vulnerable to many different types of infections and diseases. HIV is transmitted through: unprotected sexual intercourse, needle-sharing and pregnancy/delivery through birth” (Health Canada 2010).
Due to the lower level living conditions, low grade incomes, and under developed education are more probable to be exposed to HIV/AIDS. Aboriginal women in Canada are at higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS “Aboriginal women constituted 49.6 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases among Aboriginal people while Non-Aboriginal women comprise 20 percent of newly diagnosed” (Ship, Norton 2001 pg. 25). Injection of drugs is the major contributor to contracting HIV/AIDS for Aboriginal women, which stages the affects of drug use and disease and how it negatively affects the Aboriginal populations health.
Substance abuse, such as drugs and alcohol, has been documented as having harmful affects to the human body. Aboriginal communities have been exposed to the addiction of these substances and have cause significant deterioration of the individual’s health and social attributes, ruining relationships within their families and community. As more and more Canadian Aboriginals become addicted to the substances the more the degradation of the community and weakening of the quality of life within the community. Aboriginals are more exposed to substance abuse then others. This puts them at risk of being introduced at a young age and taught it is a social norm. “My father was a chronic alcoholic. His parents had seven children and five died of alcoholism, including my father.
My mom drank also and I started drinking at age eight. I was in and out of group homes and foster care and by the age of fifteen I was ordered to attend AA. I started on IV drugs at sixteen” (Chansonneuve, Deborah 2007). With the combination of alcohol, drugs, and smoking the Aboriginal population is seemly wasting away. The leading issue occurring today is the age at which Aboriginal youth are beginning to abuse substances. The use of these substances only enhances chance that youth will not complete their high school diploma, will be at greater risk for criminal offences, and will only get lower grade incomes.
Aboriginals being highly vulnerable to disease as mention before (Tuberculosis/CVD, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS) add with the substance abuse, the Aboriginal population have greater health care needs then that of the Non-Aboriginal population. Bruce Newbold explains the greater need to access physicians for healthcare and needs for greater funding. “Analysis reveals that geographic location, as compared with Aboriginal identity, appears to have a large impact with respect to health status and use of physician services. On-reserve Aboriginals, for example, reported a lower likelihood of having seen a physician and were more likely to rank their health as fair or poor. Location also influenced perceived community health problems and solutions. Self-identified problems included drugs, cancer and arthritis, while corresponding solutions included education, counseling and service access.
Although the problems and solutions were relatively consistent across space, they too varied in their importance. In general, the results tend to reinforce the determinants of health framework, suggesting that the provision of health services is insufficient to remove health disparities on its own. Instead, broader social-welfare provisions must be considered.” (Newbold 1998 pg. 59) It seems that Aboriginals who consider themselves of good health are considered to be actually of low health by the rest of society. From a Geographically view, Canadian Aboriginals on reserves do not have the same access to physicians as urban communities do. This causes Aboriginals on reserves to travel, which reduces the chance of them using a physician. The quality of proper health care is out of reach for most Aboriginal communities, mostly because of geographical isolation, cultural barriers and jurisdiction disputes by the federal and provincial government.
Improving health conditions and the quality of life for Aboriginal people of Canadian current issue that solutions are being reviewed and implemented annually. The task is not easy because of the substance abuse and low education levels of the Aboriginal youth. Government politics play a huge role in the funding and improving the health care system for the Aboriginal communities, but over time the aboriginal people will have to look to themselves to improve their quality of life. Both Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal people need to be more educated of the health risks concerning the Canadian Aboriginal population. The health of Aboriginals has not been treated in the proper manner Bruce Newbold explains “past attempts to improve aboriginal health status have tended to focus upon a narrow definition of health as the absence of disease or illness…this focus neglects a much broader range of determinants, including poverty, living conditions and education”.
The government needs to put into prospective that “Improvements in health will likely depend on the improvements in the socioeconomic conditions faced by Aboriginals…by the direct participation of Aboriginals in the health reform process” (Newbold 1998 pg. 70). Therefore, to improve health condition in Canada for the Aboriginal population the people and the government cannot be narrow minded, every aspect that being social, financial or physical must be addressed. The major improvement of the Aboriginal financial economy and social conditions is needed to repair the deteriorating health and quality of life of the Aboriginal population.
Aboriginal Health in Canada has drastically deteriorated since the first contact with European decedents. The early contagious diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis have threated to destroy Aboriginal populations and now have become chronic diseases like CVD, diabetes and HIV/AIDS for existing Aboriginal communities. Substance abuse among youth and seniors mixed with low level education and poor living conditions are advancing the decline for the quality of life in Aboriginal communities in Canada. The Government and Aboriginal communities must work together and not have a narrow mind when solving these issues and implementing them in society. Improving the socioeconomic conditions in the regions of Aboriginal communities along with health care issues is the start to improve the quality of life for Aboriginals in Canada.
Courtney from Study Moose
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