By almost every indicator, Canada’s aboriginals are facing a public health crisis. They have abnormally high rates of diabetes, infant mortality, teen pregnancy and tuberculosis at a time when they are also the fastest-growing segment of the population. The suicide rate in Nunavut is 12 times higher the national one. And research in the area of aboriginal health is still in its infancy.
That is why closing down the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) is a serious misstep. Its paltry $5-million-a-year budget is a small saving for Health Canada. If the government has a better idea about how to more effectively, and economically, address the critical health disparities that First Nations, Inuit and Métis people face, it should certainly make these ideas public.
In the meantime, however, NAHO has played a crucial role in advancing research on aboriginal health, collecting and analyzing data, and leading community initiatives, such as programs to help people quit smoking, prevent suicide and avoid teen pregnancy. It has produced 12 issues of the Journal of Aboriginal Health, and had already put out requests for research papers for this fall’s edition, to be devoted to “Inuit health and wellness in its broadest sense.”
Aboriginals face unique challenges that seriously impact their health, including a traumatic history of family separation and residential schooling; inadequate housing; difficulty accessing clean water and food; high rates of alcoholism and unemployment; poverty; and exposure to environmental contaminants.
One would imagine that the federal Health Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, herself an Inuk and Nunavut’s MP, would be perfectly positioned to recognize the severity of these problems. Instead, in a cruel irony, she has been unwilling to protect the only research organization of its kind dedicated to improving health outcomes for Aboriginals. The closure of NAHO will reverse a decade of progress, and leave a gaping hole for those who are most in need.