Unhealthy lifestyles among First Nations people are causing many of the health problems in Indigenous communities in Canada, as the Honourable Steven Point told the audience at the Lake Babine Health Forum on May 7.
Steven, the former Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia spoke along with his wife Dr. Gwen Point at the three-day event held at the Margaret Patrick Memorial Centre in Burns Lake.
The shift away from consuming traditional foods – such as hunted and trapped wild game – over the past few decades has seen the emergence of ailments that were previously unknown to Aboriginal people, Steven explained.
One sign of those problems is the lack of teeth among elderly people, and Steven told a story about an Indigenous community in the Northwest Territories that used to trade the furs they trapped in exchange for supplies at a Hudson’s Bay trading post.
The community had slowed down their trap line outings so that their children could attend school near a growing mining town.
“The major cause of the teeth falling out was a change of diet. The people began to rely on the food they bought at the local store, which provided bologna and bread and cereal and potato chips and pop,” Steven said.
“In 10 years the people were suffering from alcoholism, they were suffering from poverty. In 10 years they had prostitution and prescription drug problems. In 10 years the elders were losing their teeth and dying. What happened to them over a 10-year period happened to Indigenous people in the south over a 50-60 year period. Gradually our health has deteriorated.”
The situation has worsened to a degree that diabetes is now a major health concern in First Nations communities across Canada.
The issue was explored in a research project by Dr. Jay Wortman, a Métis doctor in Vancouver, who was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Wortman adopted a new diet low in carbohydrates and his health improved. He then looked into how the diets of Indigenous peoples, which traditionally included a lot of meat, seafood and non-starch vegetables have shifted to comprising more sugary and processed foods.
The former lieutenant governor took aim at certain foods he has seen commonly eaten in B.C. Indigenous communities, moving the audience to laughter.
“I go to some of our potlaches these days and the first thing that gets eaten is the fried bologna. People rush to the fried bologna! Why? That’s what we grew up on! Bologna was cheap! That is not traditional food! But that’s what we’re eating,” he said.
“I want to tell you about bannock too. Bannock is not an Indian food. There’s a place in Scotland called Bannock. It comes from Scotland. We’re not Scottish! I’ve got nothing against bannock and the bannock makers but I want you to know that bannock is nothing but sugar and fat. If you want to be fat and sweet go ahead! But eat it in moderation.”
As a result of unhealthy eating and diabetes people experience obesity, arthritis and chronic pain, but the tendency to alleviate pain through painkillers has only made the problem bigger, Steven said.
“What do doctors give you – God bless them – painkillers. Do you know what that’s like? It’s like taking your car, that’s telling you that it’s running out of oil and the light’s blinking and you take a hammer and you bang the light out. It doesn’t make any sense right? You need to put oil in your damn car. When we take painkillers we’re banging the damn light out.”
“And we’ve got a prescription drug problem that is unreal. I was at a pow wow three years ago and one of the elders came up to me and wanted to sell me Tylenol for $5. These are crimes of poverty. But we’ve got to admit it. We’ve got to look in the mirror and say ‘ya we’ve got a prescription drug problem.’ Why do we have so many problems with prescription drugs? Because a lot of people are suffering from chronic pain.”
One of the first steps in a better direction is exercise, even if it means starting slow by walking more.
“If you’re starting to take up two chairs – you’ve got to exercise. The pressure that you put on your muscles moves the lymph system. If your body is aching it’s because you’re not exercising. Walk twice a day. You will make an appointment with your heart and your brain and burn fat. Short walks. Do it. Your lymph system will thank you for it.”
The speech of Steven’s wife Gwen touched on the spiritual and emotional side of health.
The former professor of social work and chancellor at the University of the Fraser Valley said that fear and anger have been affecting family interactions among Indigenous people.
“Sometimes someone is angry and they’re talking. I tell the people – look past that anger. What’s really there is somebody that’s hurt, that’s what’s talking.”
The abuse suffered at government-run residential schools took away the spirituality of many First Nations people, Gwen said.
“If you’ve had trauma in your life – where you get peace of mind and peace of heart from is where you can connect with spirit. And how do you do that? The English word is prayer. The connection to the creator, to God. For many of us that connection is closed because of what we’ve been through. Because of the three or four generations of residential school.”
Gwen told the audience that she was raised in the Catholic Church and she understands the anger of many Indigenous people towards the churches because of their role in the residential school system.
“But don’t confuse God and Jesus and the creator with what men and women have done. It was bad men and bad women that did that. It wasn’t God and the creator.”
“That bitterness and anger only hurts you. I learned what forgiveness was. When you forgive somebody for what they’ve done you’re releasing yourself from them. You’re letting them go. And that’s powerful.”
The conference was held May 7-9 and featured dozens of speakers from the health care and political fields.