New attitudes change health [First Nations]

TheStarPhoenix.com – opinion/editorials
August 18, 2011.    By John G. Abbott, The StarPhoenix

Following is the opinion of Abbott, the head of the Health Council of Canada.

Many Canadians are aware that First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people have significantly worse health and more challenging living conditions than the larger Canadian population.

In 2010, the Health Council of Canada began a multi-year project to learn about programs and strategies that have the potential to reduce these unacceptable health disparities between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

Last January the Health Council of Canada visited Calgary, one of seven cross-Canada sessions that brought together front-line workers, government representatives, researchers, and others to identify programs and services that are helping to improve the health care of expectant aboriginal mothers and young children.

Each region had its own specific topics and programs to bring forward, but there were some common threads of discussion across the country.

On Aug. 9, we released a report about what we heard for Canadians and governments, titled Understanding and Improving Aboriginal Maternal and Child Health in Canada.

This document included three important themes.

First, embedded in many success stories we heard was the importance of rebuilding what has been stripped from aboriginal peoples, such as knowledge of their language and traditions, pride in their culture, and selfdetermination.

Participants expressed concern that many non-aboriginal Canadians – including those who work in health care, child welfare services, and government offices – simply don’t understand or value the First Nation world view, and they don’t understand how the multigenerational impact of colonialism and the residential school experiences have affected the entire culture.

We heard about the importance of offering health care services that integrate mainstream Western medicine with traditional and culturally relevant aboriginal practices. Front-line workers told us that a history of paternalistic treatment and racism, coupled with a continued lack of understanding, has created a sense of wariness among the aboriginal mothers they serve.

Women can be afraid to seek out care because they’re afraid of racism, or of being judged for their lack of knowledge or behaviour. If they are treated insensitively, they may be reluctant to return.

Second, a number of successful programs have had to move beyond typical health-care services to help First Nation women and families with other aspects of their lives, such as housing, social/emotional support, and education.

The importance of education came up repeatedly at every regional session – specifically prenatal education, support for new parents, and preschool programs for young children.

These early interventions help to lay a foundation for better lifelong physical and emotional health. Participants talked about the underlying issues of aboriginal health at every regional session, including factors such as poverty, addictions, family violence, self-esteem, and the intergenerational legacy of colonization and residential schools.

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