U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

Indigenous leaders, health care providers to gather at U of T

Conference seeks to address health inequities in Indigenous populations

Inuit girls play street bat and ball

The Canadian government needs to do more for our Indigenous populations – that’s the message of a recent report by the United Nations that calls the government’s efforts to improve the overall health, safety and living conditions of Indigenous populations “insufficient”.

The UN report says there is a growing gap in the wellbeing of Indigenous populations compared with non-Indigenous Canadians. As well, Indigenous women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse.

To address these and other disparities, Aboriginal health experts, care providers and community members from all over Canada are coming together for the 2014 Indigenous Health Conference.

The conference is an opportunity for health professionals to share experiences and discuss ways to build trust, improve quality of care and enhance cultural competency, and is the first of its kind hosted by the University of Toronto. Most of the conference committee and speakers are from Indigenous backgrounds. The event includes a job fair to help health care providers find opportunities in under-resourced, remote and rural communities.

Professor Anna Banerji — who has spent two decades working with Indigenous peoples — created the event. Her extensive research showed that Inuit babies in Canada’s North have the highest rate of lung infection in the world, due — among other reasons — to cigarette smoke exposure, overcrowded housing, poor nutrition and long distances to health facilities.

More recently, Banerji showed that giving Inuit babies antibodies against a virus called RSV would be cheaper than treating them in hospital — findings that changed Canadian Paediatric Society guidelines on prevention of RSV among the Inuit.

However, those guidelines have not yet been implemented. Banerji, an assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics and Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Director of Global and Indigenous Health Continuing Professional Development, says the delay is rooted in a double standard persistent in Canada’s health care system.

“We have plenty of resources to go around, yet we tolerate Indigenous children starving in this country. It’s unacceptable that we allow these conditions to exist even though we can afford to do better,” says Banerji.

Indigenous children receive less funding per capita for education than non-Indigenous children in Canada.

Banerji explains Indigenous peoples experience significant health disparities on every major indicator, including lower life expectancies and higher infant mortality rates. She feels colonization and a history of trauma compound sustained malnutrition, poverty and lack of access to adequate care.

“The average Canadian doesn’t know about the abuse that took place in residential schools; that treaties were “negotiated” with chiefs and elders who didn’t speak or understand the language; and that Indigenous populations were confined to small areas and were not allowed to leave without permission from the Crown,” says Banerji, who was appointed to the Order of Ontario in 2012 for her work on respiratory diseases in Inuit children and refugee health.

Misconceptions about how Indigenous populations seek care also contribute to the problem. In general, First Nations, Inuit and Métis Canadians have a holistic view of health that takes their communities, environment, families, elders, ancestors and future generations into account. Focusing on the biomedical aspect of health addresses only a small piece of the puzzle for many Indigenous peoples.

“We have to build trust by listening to Indigenous peoples. We need to foster dialogue, stop colonization and negotiate in good faith,” says Banerji. She hopes the conference will help Indigenous and non-Indigenous healthcare professionals explore challenges and possible solutions.

“There’s a lot of healing that still needs to take place. Together we can stop the legacy of colonization.”

The conference will take place every other year, alternating with the North American Refugee Health Conference. Abstracts are currently being accepted.