the canada issue

New hope for improved Indigenous health

Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health looking to fill knowledge gaps by Jenny Hall

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If you’re an Indigenous person in Canada, you’re six to 10 times more likely to commit suicide than a member of the general Canadian population. You’re four times more likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes and eight to 10 times more likely to contract tuberculosis.

The list goes on: HIV, dental disease, cardiovascular disease, substance use disorders – nearly every condition out there affects Indigenous Canadians disproportionately.

U of T is trying to close this gap with the establishment of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health (WBIIH), located in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Established with a $10 million gift from Michael and Amira Dan, the WBIIH is the only privately funded institute of its kind in the world.

Under the guidance of a community advisory council, the WBIIH will conduct research, support faculty and trainees and address areas of concern identified by Indigenous communities with which it partners.

“Our mission”, says Howard Hu, Dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, “is to look for knowledge gaps and to produce the information that policymakers, public health officials and clinicians need in order to make the right decisions.”

Hu is overseeing one of the WBIIH’s first studies, an investigation into cancer and the environment in First Nations communities in Northern Ontario.

“It will address a huge question that remains unanswered – whether environmental contamination is a risk factor in what has been perceived as an increase in cancer rates in First Nations communities up north,” he says.

The context in which Indigenous health disparities have developed is key, says Earl Nowgesic, an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the Interim Associate Director of the WBIIH.

“For over 100 years and up until the 1990s, tens of thousands of Indigenous, or Aboriginal, children attended Aboriginal Residential Schools. These schools separated Aboriginal children from their families, weakening family and cultural relations, thus indoctrinating children into Canada’s Euro-Christian society”, he says, paraphrasing the 2015 summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was established in 2008 to acknowledge Residential School experiences and to contribute to reconciliation.

The legacy of the residential school system is a gap not only in health but in social conditions.

“Indigenous health isn’t just about curing diseases,” says Jeff Reading, a cardiovascular researcher from the University of Victoria who came to U of T to help establish the WBIIH as its Interim Director. “Until people get access to education, clean water, food security, and jobs, we are just going to be patching up the health concerns of a very vulnerable population.”

The WBIIH’s leaders are optimistic that the Canada of the future will be a healthier place for Indigenous people, pointing to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the recent election of a federal government that appears to be committed to Indigenous issues as hopeful signs.

“I am Ojibwe from Gull Bay First Nation,” says Nowgesic. “Both my parents attended Aboriginal Residential Schools. Despite that legacy, my parents persevered and remained true to their cultural traditions. They passed those values down to me and my sisters. I very much believe that we can make a difference.”