Aboriginal health was the focus at McGill University’s first Aboriginal Health Career Day hosted by the First Peoples’ House of the Montreal university. Held February 2, the day had speakers and panelists from health research, dentistry, medicine and nursing. Audrey Claire Lawrence, the Executive Director of the Aboriginal Nurses Association, spoke of the importance of having proper training of medical staff and getting more Aboriginal people into the medical profession.

Some of the major issues facing First Nations today are high rates of diabetes and cardiac problems and all the issues related to them. Lawrence says generations that were previously healthy are now facing challenges because of the way their lifestyle has changed. They can no longer continue living a healthy traditional lifestyle because the animals themselves are not healthy and the expensive of maintaining a traditional lifestyle is prohibitive. “Just the high cost of food is a deterrent to eating healthy. We are a lot more sedentary now and that has caused a whole new set of problems,” says Lawrence.

“Awareness is a big issue when dealing with diabetes, but prevention is also just as important. The more preventative measures we take, the less stress is on the treatment,” says Kathy Sky, a nurse from Kahnawake who was asked to share her knowledge with Lawrence and to encourage more students to get into nursing.

When asked what was needed to improve the situations in Native communities, the answer was simple: better housing and better programs. “The housing is overcrowded which leads to poor cardiac problems because people are breathing in second-hand smoke, as well we have drug and alcohol abuse which has created a whole new set of problems.”

We need more nurses and doctors but we also need our communities to be able to support them as well. The need for open communication between frontline workers and the establishment was also very apparent during the presentation.

Dr. Ann Macaulay, a former family physician who worked in Kahnawake, commented on the lack of Aboriginal doctors. “The Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada are currently doing a survey to discover the number Aboriginal doctors who are in Canada.”

Dr. Arlington Dungy, the Associate Dean of Alumni and Student Affairs for the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, says that there are only about 200 Aboriginal doctors in Canada when there should be at least 1500 to 2000 to meet the demand. Macaulay is now working on an Aboriginal health curriculum for McGill’s medical school which will help sensitize medical students to Aboriginal health concerns.

Representatives from the National Network for Aboriginal Mental Health Research (NAMHR) tackle issues like substance abuse, gambling, addiction, suicide prevention and mental health issues. NAMHR works with community researchers, mental-health providers and Aboriginal organizations to address the needs of First Nations in Canada. Colette Isaac, who works with NAMHR, stresses the importance of doing more for Aboriginal health issues. One of NAMHR’s major projects is the Stories of Resilience project which will be looking five or six major groups across Canada, meeting with community leaders and groups to find out what works and why they are still here. “To a large degree the Canadian government has done everything it could to get rid of Aboriginal people and we’re still here,” says Isaac.

The project is trying to make things better for First Nations in Canada. NAMHR hopes that the research gathered will be used to change policy, which is one of the only ways to really help the issues facing First Nations.

In the end, the answer to many of the health issues facing Aboriginal peoples is communication and funding. However, with more days like this one, we are well on our way to finding a cure.