This Inukshuk in Vancouver reminds us that a large portion of Canada's Aboriginal population lives in cities. (Bigstock photo)

Aboriginal health concerns not exclusive to Ontario’s northern communities, says new research

Urban Aboriginal population has high rates of illness and poverty

More than 60 per cent of Canada’s Aboriginal population live in urban areas and are experiencing high rates of illness, poverty and challenges in access to food and housing security, new University of Toronto and St. Michael's Hospital research shows.

“We all continue to be shocked by the living conditions in places like Attawapiskat, but it's important to realize this is also happening right here in our backyards,” said Professor Janet Smylie of U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, lead investigator of the study and a researcher at the Centre for Research and Inner City Health at St. Michael’s Hospital.

The Our Health Counts Urban Aboriginal Health Database project, a first-of-its-kind health database for urban Aboriginal People in Ontario, was created to fill the gaps in Aboriginal health information and to understand the full extent of health issues and challenges experienced by this population.

Researchers collected data for factors that influence a person’s health such as poverty, illness and income for the First Nations population of Hamilton – chosen for its large Aboriginal population and strong infrastructure of Aboriginal community health and social services.

“Public health data for the urban Aboriginal community was almost non-existent,” said Smylie. “This means often this population is hidden, limiting the policy makers’ ability to address the health problems of these communities.”

The study found that almost 80 per cent of the First Nations people living in Hamilton earn less than $20,000 per year and 70 per cent live in the poorest neighbourhoods, compared with 25 per cent of the total Hamilton population.

This poverty is accompanied by challenges in access to housing and food security, Smylie said. Ninety per cent of First Nations people in Hamilton have moved once in last five years and more than 50 per cent moved three or more times in last five years.

The report said this population is living with a disproportionate burden of chronic disease and disability. Rates of diabetes are 15.6 per cent – more than three times that of the total Hamilton population.

Compared to the general population, First Nations people living in Hamilton were also more than twice as likely to visit an emergency room, 25 times more likely to report living in a crowded condition and had children who were more than twice as likely to have asthma.

“There is a great health inequity here,” said Smylie. “First Nations people have higher health problems yet access to services and care is poorer.”

An innovative sampling technique was used to recruit the 790 participants. Each participant who completed an interview was given a ticket that they could pass on to other people they knew. For every participated recruited, the person who did the recruitment received $10.

“The concept of self-determination around the data is very important,” said Sylvia Maracle, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres. “It shows us that this population wants to make a difference in their own health.”

The data collection method used in this study finds people that a census might miss – the 13 per cent of people surveyed who don’t have a home and those with literacy or accessibility issues.
For change to occur, the factors that contribute to these results, such as stable housing and access to food and primary health care need to be addressed, Smylie said.

The report is released by the De Dwa Dah  Dehs Ney>s Aboriginal Health Centre, Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, Hamilton Executive Directors’ Aboriginal Coalition and the Our Health Counts Governing Council. It is in partnership with the health research team led by Dr. Janet Smylie. The report is dedicated to the First Nations community in Hamilton. Some of the data was collected through the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences if participants gave their permission.

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