U of T hosts virtual, three-day Indigenous health conference

Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor in U of T's Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says the risk posed by COVID-19 to Indigenous Peoples in Canada has not been properly recognized (photo courtesy of Anna Banerji)

A three-day Indigenous Health Conference that kicked off Thursday at the University of Toronto will focus on solutions to health-care challenges facing Indigenous Peoples in Canada. 

The conference – held virtually from Dec. 3 to 5 – will include more than 700 attendees from across Canada and is built around the theme of Indigenous youth and suicide prevention. 

Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, says Indigenous Peoples in Canada experience systemic discrimination that leads to a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, as well as a host of other health issues.

“There is systemic discrimination and biases in the Canadian health-care system, but we can mark the resiliency, strength and accomplishments of Indigenous Peoples,” says Banerji, who is cross-appointed at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and is an infectious disease specialist.

“This is a way to celebrate Indigenous Peoples and our culture.”

The conference will feature sessions focusing on using Indigenous knowledge to promote child and youth health, as well as Indigenous land-based healing programs. There is also a session planned on Indigenous harm reduction.

At the conference, Banerji will speak about her late son Nathan Banerji-Kearney. He was an Inuk child who was adopted when he was four months old. He died in 2018 at the age of 14.

“The conference is about building our future, and about how we need to build Indigenous youth as tomorrow’s leaders. They will be the key in the future to solving problems,” Banerji says.

Dr. Anna Banerji and her late son Nathan Banerji-Kearney (photo courtesy of Anna Banerji)

The conference will have keynote presentations by Michèle Audette, commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, as well as by Juno award-winning Inuk singer and songwriter, Susan Aglukark.

Another keynote presentation at the conference features Dr. Carrie Bourassa, scientific director of the Institute of Indigenous Peoples' Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. She will will address the pandemic on Indigenous Peoples.

“I think the risk COVID-19 poses to Indigenous peoples has been under-recognized,” says Banerji. “The pandemic has been happening for nine months and I don’t think there’s been enough attention on how it’s impacted Indigenous communities.

“We need many things to improve the health of Indigenous people – better housing, more rapid testing and the recognition of systemic discrimination that exists in the Canadian health-care system.”

Banerji says accessing health care quickly can be difficult in remote, fly-in communities. 

“The way Indigenous communities have kept COVID-19 out is through lockdowns and restrictions, but this means diabetic nurses haven’t gone in, dentists haven’t gone in, there has been decreased mental health services. The collateral damage from COVID-19 has been huge.”


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