When it comes to healthy living, Native youth aren’t doing that well. If you’re a child growing up on a reserve the odds are stacked up against you from Day One – that’s according to a recent health study on Aboriginal children.

On March 30, the Toronto-based Centre for Research on Inner City Health released a 140-page report, titled “Health of Indigenous Children: Health Assessment in Action”. The document looks at the health of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Canada as well as Indigenous children in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Funded by Health Canada, it documents what is known about the health of Indigenous children (from birth to age 12) and shows that the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children was found in all four countries.

Indigenous children experience higher rates of infant morality, sudden infant death syndrome, child injury, accidental death, suicide and a number of health ailments when compared to non-Indigenous children.

One of the most startling findings when looking at First Nations children living on reserves in Canada is that the obesity rate stands at 36 per cent compared to eight per cent for Canadian children overall.

The report identifies several reasons for this, including family income, parental education and physical activity. It further underlines that the prevention measures are ineffective, citing better access to preventative healthcare would help detect nutritional issues before weight problems become pronounced.

Right on the heels of the report came the announcement that the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) – which represent 49 First Nations communities in Ontario ¬– was introducing a new fitness program called Fun in Athletics into its territory. Administered by International Fun and Team Athletics (IFTA), the program’s objective is to educate young people of the achievements of First Nations sporting heroes, and through modern physical fitness programming and goal setting, to inspire them to take up sports.

NAN Deputy Grand Chief Terry Waboose welcomes this development. “When we were offered the opportunity to be part of the program, we jumped on it. We have an interest in making sure our young people are fit – and if Fun in Athletics is one way of going about that, we will certainly support it.

“We realize that being involved in sports at the community level has a positive impact on the health and the mental well-being of our young people.”

Waboose pointed out that nothing is in place yet as the Fun in Athletics program has just been launched and he expects it will take two years to implement it throughout NAN. “Though one of the targets we will be looking at is having something in place by the new school year in September.”

The reason for the high obesity rate is partially due to the change in Aboriginal lifestyle since the 1960s, explained Waboose. “Our way of life has changed so much over the last 30, 40 years. In NAN, we were still living on the land back then. Today we live in small communities and have become more sedentary. Fewer of us lead a traditional lifestyle, and less hunting and fishing is done.”

Besides this shift in lifestyle, Waboose pointed to a change in people’s diets and the foods they eat. “We use to obtain our food from the land, we would hunt and fish. Now we buy our food at the store and it’s not always the proper type of food. A lot of processed foods are being consumed by our young people – many of whom live on pop and chips.”

Waboose said due to the isolated locations of communities, the higher cost of food plays a significant factor in choosing what to eat. “It’s a lot cheaper in our territory to buy a can of Coke than a litre of milk. Canned and processed foods are more available and are less expensive compared to fresh vegetables and healthier foods.”

Waboose realized obesity is a huge problem to tackle but he would like to reverse the trend. He pointed to the growing number of recreational facilities being constructed throughout NAN. “More First Nations communities are getting arenas, rec centres and playgrounds. Without them it was always a challenge to introduce sports programs, like soccer, baseball and hockey, but now it seems more possible.”

Part of the Fun in Athletics program is to create role models and allow Native children to learn that First Nations athletes, such as marathon runner Tom Longboat and Olympic track star Joe Keeper, have a storied history in Canadian athletics. Today young people can look up to hockey players like Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks and Jordin Tootoo of the Nashville Predators and realize playing in the National Hockey League is possible.

“It is important to have role models,” said Waboose. “Introducing programs such as Fun in Athletics to our communities will help young people who might have their sights set on participating in events such as the North American Indigenous Games but don’t yet have an outlet for training.”