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Aboriginal Woman's Health

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A Brief Over-View Of Some Of The Health Related Issues Affecting Aboriginal Women.

Aboriginal Studies 1116

K Paxton-Judge


A Brief Over-View Of Some Of The Health Related Issues Affecting Aboriginal Women.

“Canada is praised for affording its people one the best qualities of life anywhere in the world, yet Aboriginal women and men (living in Canada are often) characterized by a health profile one would normally associate with the developing world.”

- Aboriginal Women’s Health Research Synthesis Project.


Elders, as well as historical writings and current research, tell us that pre-contact aboriginal peoples enjoyed an extremely high level of physical mental and spiritual health and wellness. The quality and quantity of life was drastically different than it is today, for example pre-contact aboriginal elders were said to often live beyond the age of 100 and were seldom, if ever, plagued by disease. Traditionally aboriginal communities followed a holistic approach to medicine, centred around the need for balance in all aspects of life. “ Today, aboriginal people in Canada are subject to some of the lowest points on quality of life measures as defined by the World Health Organization… Aboriginal people have the highest rates of unemployment, suicide, death by non-natural causes, infant mortality, incarceration, child protection intervention, inadequate housing and student-drop out rates.” There are a wide range of factors affecting aboriginal health. With the loss of land, destruction of culture, breakdown of communities, and demoralization of mind, body and spirit that was suffered in the years following contact aboriginal people have many powerful obstacles to overcome in reclaiming the type of wellness lived by their ancestors.

This paper will address only a small number of the issues affecting aboriginal people and in particular aboriginal women’s health, including aspects of access to health care, diet and nutrition, economics and poverty, violence and abuse, and the high prevalence of HIV among aboriginal women. This paper also intends to highlight the connections, caused by colonization, between the conditions in which aboriginal women’s lives are based and their health.


Lack of access to equal and appropriate health care is one of the major barriers First Nations people are struggling with today. For example in 1996, 17.7% of First Nations people living on reservations, mostly in northern Canada, lived in what is called a вЂ?special access zone’. This means “no year-round road access to service centers where supplies, material and equipment, skilled and semiskilled labour, financial institutions, health and hospital services and their provincial and federal services.” Jurisdictional conflicts are another major barrier in the availability of health services to aboriginal people. Constitutionally the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction for вЂ?Indians’ health issues. For those First Nations people who do not live on federal reservations or those who have lost their status as an Indian (many women and their children were unable to get there status back after Bill C31, and many more unable to prove вЂ?Indian’ ancestry to the courts satisfaction) have further difficulties, or more often inability, in accessing government funded health care. Neither the federal government nor the provincial government is willing to accept responsibility for off-reserve aboriginals’ health care needs. Although, the story does not change much for onвЂ"reserve. There are constant battles between governments over who pays for which health care services, often at the cost of the health of the people. Not only are there difficulties in accessing and finding funding for health services available to First Nations people, but the programs and services that do exist are predominantly culturally and linguistically inappropriate, encompassing westernised values and teachings which often contradict aboriginal methods of healing.


With the relocation of the indigenous peoples of Canada to reservations, much of their traditional diet was lost. Those who did manage to retain what aspects of their traditional diets were left to them are now faced with such issues as the continuing rape and pillaging of the land resources, and water, air and land contamination. In some northern communities, contamination is becoming a critically dangerous problem. Northern Inuk women, for example, have PCB levels in their breast milk that are five times higher than in women from southern Canada. Poisons such as neurotoxins, mercury, lead, cadmium and PCBs are commonly ingested though fish and wildlife, the main source of nutrition for many aboriginal communities. Not all the effects of contaminates are know, but it’s obvious that this is not something to be taken lightly. A study done in Quebec with Cree expectant mothers who eat lots of fresh water fish found that children exposed to mercury in the womb developed abnormal muscle tone and deep tendon reflexes. The most frightening aspect of contamination is the synergetic effects two metals have when ingested together: “One metal has the ability to enhance the toxicity of an other metal in amounts smaller than what it would usually take that metal to be toxic.” A laboratory study was conducted on rats to test the toxicity of mercury and lead when combined. Rats were first dosed with an amount of mercury that would cause death in 1% of the rate population within 5 days (lethal dose 1%-LD1), then they were given an LD1 amount of lead. The result was a 100% death rate. What is most heart wrenching is that chronic doses of lead, mercury and PCB are in the every day foods many aboriginal communities are reliant on.

Diet is also obviously effected by income. Many First Nations



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