Shane Gottfriedson: The grim state of First Nations health in B.C.
By Shane Gottfriedson
If health is wealth, then First Nations people fall short again.
The state of Canada’s health-care system is typically met with concern, but add First Nations people to the equation and the situation becomes even more grim.
Today, First Nations people are more susceptible to infectious disease as well as disease brought on by environmental or dietary conditions. Infant mortality rates are higher in comparison to non-aboriginal Canadians, as are deaths of non-natural causes; incidences of life-threatening degenerative conditions, such as cancer, heart, liver, and lung disease, are rising; and the life expectancy of First Nations people overall is seven to eight years less than that of other Canadians.
When an epidemic hits the Canadian population, it seems to hit the First Nations communities even harder. With a generally lower standard of living, limited health care and basic infrastructure such as clean water, insufficient housing, and increased challenges with transportation and communication, First Nations communities can suffer great devastation in a short time frame.
Health is a multifaceted, complicated issue among First Nations communities that extends beyond the physical into the realms of mental health, addictions issues, and violence. H1N1 remains a huge concern for First Nations communities entering the flu season. National pandemic plans are being discussed and should be supported at a community level where information can be shared. Diabetes also remains a paramount concern, understanding that many First Nations people are inflicted with the illness.
Further to receiving adequate health care, there remains a large gap between insured benefits for aboriginal people and the actual cost of attaining available health care. Non-insured health benefits impact the elders specifically, refusing to offset such costs as prescriptions, travel expenses to specialist appointments, and support care services.
If we are going to have an honest discussion about how to improve the health conditions for First Nations people, we need to acknowledge that there remains an ongoing issue of inadequate housing on reserve which leads to overcrowding, unsafe drinking water, lower levels of education, and subsequent higher levels of unemployment. We also need to study ways in which we can institute capital infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plants.
Beyond the actual infrastructure, it is our responsibility to encourage healthy lifestyles among our First Nations people. Sports for youth that promote active, healthy living have been successful in some communities, as well as similar programs for our adults and elders.
We need to implement education in the school system that teaches the benefits of a healthy diet as it relates to First Nations communities. Bring our youth back to our traditional ways of nourishing ourselves from natural proteins produced from the land. The summer season is a time when our people are preparing for the winter months by way of hunting, gathering, and food storage. But this winter is likely to bring more health issues with it.
Economic development is integral to providing the financial support necessary for First Nations communities to become strong again.
A healthy community is a strong community, and a strong community is a strong Canada.
We have a responsibility as leaders to care for our people.