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Canada Study highlights health challenges faced by urban First Nations people

Community health nurse Inez Jasper, left, administers a flu shot to Grand Chief Doug Kelly, Chair of the First Nations Health Council, at the Sto:lo Nation Health Services building in Chilliwack, B.C., on Friday February 1, 2013. Later this year, the First Nations Health Authority will assume responsibility for all federal health services for First Nations people in British Columbia. DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Urban First Nations people are more likely to smoke and drink, live in dilapidated homes, earn less and be prone to chronic diseases than their non-indigenous counterparts, says a study released by Statistics Canada on Tuesday.

The study included 8,801 individuals in 2012 who were 15 and older, identified as First Nations and lived off-reserve. It sought to pinpoint social determinants of health, which include things such as level of education, employment and access to suitable health care. It also looked at chronic diseases affecting the demographic, such as high blood pressure and obesity.

Among the study's findings:

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  • 49 per cent of urban First Nations people said they were in good health; 62 per cent of other Canadians said the same;
  • The unemployment rate for urban First Nations sits at 15 per cent, compared to 8 per cent for other Canadians;
  • 29 per cent of urban First Nation people smoke daily compared to 16 per cent of other Canadians;
  • 26 per cent of First Nation people living off-reserve reported heavy drinking; 20 per cent of Canadians reported similarly;
  • 13 per cent of urban First Nation people said they live in homes in need of major repairs. (No comparable stats were listed here.);
  • Urban First Nations people earned $30,679 after tax compared to $40,051 earned by other Canadians;
  • 63 per cent of First Nations people living off-reserve reported they struggle with one or multiple chronic ailments, compared to 49 per cent of other Canadians;
  • 60 per cent of urban First Nation individuals said they had good mental health; 72 per cent of other Canadians said the same.

Health problems can be compounded by other issues. Not enough food, for example, can lead to the health complications, says the study, as can limited education.

The study touches on the effects of the residential school system, but found that they became "no longer significant" after other social determinants of health were assessed.

Chandrakant Shah has been serving the health needs of indigenous people for the past 20 years as a primary-care physician at Anishnawbe Health Toronto.

He said the deck is stacked against most of his patients. "They're poor and have issues with unemployment, income and education – all factors affecting the health of the people," he said.

In addition, he says, loss of identity and culture has created a lot of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health issues.

"If you go to a family doctor, you go with one problem," he said. "Here, many do come with one problem, but we do our work in such a way knowing that there are 10 problems."

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day says the solutions have been public for almost a year – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action.

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"It focuses very specifically on health, education, economy and recognition of First Nation treaties and governments," he said. "Where cultural genocide happened, where physical genocide happened, where race-based segregation of a people happened, what you see is very consistent threads of manifestations of health problems, of psychological issues and a collective of PTSD."

Mr. Day, who also manages the national health file for the Assembly of First Nations, said the socioeconomic and health problems of off-reserve First Nations people are byproducts of Canadian colonial history.

"What we're really dealing with here is the effects of Canada's apartheid, 140 years of the Indian Act system," he said.

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