Displacement and loss of land have hurt the health of Crees in Quebec and Manitoba, says a report tabled at an assembly of the World Health Organization.
Cross Lake, a Cree community of 4,500 people in Manitoba, has had 120 suicide attempts and seven suicides this year alone, says the report, issued jointly by Cross Lake and Chisasibi.
The Cross Lake health clinic is looking at closing down because of a lack of doctors and nurses. Supplies of medication aren’t always coming in on time, leaving chronic patients without medication.
Harvard University anthropology professor Ronald Niezen, who helped write the report, said the situation in Cross Lake is of emergency proportions.
“There is nothing in place to pull this community out of this mess,” he said.
Niezen said Cross Lake has appealed for help and funding from every place it could think of, but hasn’t got the assistance it needs. “Funding is not proportional to the emergency,” Niezen said.
As for the suicides, he said, “it isn’t a group of teens but people between the ages of nine to fifty-six. This is the worst situation in Canada.”
“There’s a lot of unresolved grief. You can’t even finish grieving one person and another one happens,” said Bob Brightnose, a Cross Lake resident.
In Chisasibi, substandard housing is moldy and causes asthma and chronic bronchitis. The people who live in these old homes end up in emergency rooms in much larger numbers than people who live in other houses, according to Dr. Robert Harris, a public health physician from Chisasibi.
Harris said that even though Canada has been declared by the United Nations as the country with the world’s highest living standards, this isn’t felt in the Cree communities.
“In Chisasibi, poor housing began as a social issue, became a health issue and is now a moral issue,” said Harris. “It’s a matter of equity, justice and fundamental human rights.” Fifty per cent of the houses in Chisasibi can be considered sick, said Harris.
In an address at the WHO assembly, Dr. Gro Harlem Bruntland, the organization’s director-general, said there are “few examples where (government) actions have reduced the disparities between indigenous peoples’ health and that of other peoples within the national boundaries.”
At the assembly, both indigenous officials and WHO representatives agreed that self-determination is essential for good health.
Dr. Erica-Irene Daes, chairperson of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations said the lack of self-determination has led to chronic disease.
Mega-hydro projects are a form of oppression that has led to depression, alcoholism and diabetes, says the Cree report.
Thirty percent of adults in both communities suffer from diabetes, with children as young as seven are developing what has usually been an adult disease. Deaths due to diabetes-related kidney disease are also on the rise, according to the report.
Daes said oppression, malnutrition, stress and depression are inter-connected issues, and they must be all dealt with to achieve an overall health strategy. “Land is health and oppression is a disease,” she said.