Academic journal article Health Law Journal

Type 2 Diabetes and Children in Aboriginal Communities: The Array of Factors That Shape Health and Access to Health Care

Academic journal article Health Law Journal

Type 2 Diabetes and Children in Aboriginal Communities: The Array of Factors That Shape Health and Access to Health Care

Article excerpt

The human costs of unrestrained development on our traditional territory, whether in the form of massive hydroelectric development or irresponsible forestry operations, are no surprise for us. Diabetes has followed the destruction of our traditional way of life and the imposition of a welfare economy. Now we see that one in seven pregnant Cree women is sick with this disease, and our children are being born high risk or actually sick. (1)

I. Introduction

The history of Canada's Indigenous (2) peoples would be incomplete without examining and recounting the ravaging toll exacted by illness on their civilization. First contacts between Aboriginal communities and European explorers and settlers were marked by an onslaught of disease and war, resulting in significant population declines among Indigenous communities, and in rare cases, the virtual extinction of Amerindian nations. (3) By the 1870s, European expansion and industrialization resulted in the relocation of Indigenous peoples onto reserve territories where pestilence and famine continued to plague their communities. (4) Through legislation and treaties with Aboriginal leaders, the Canadian government promised to provide for and protect the health of Indigenous peoples, and thereby guarantee the welfare of future generations. Nevertheless, these issues continued to be ignored by the government throughout most of the twentieth century. (5)

In recent years, Canada's federal government has begun to consider Aboriginal claims regarding land, resources, health, social welfare, education, and employment. Although section 88 of the Indian Act (6) provides that general provincial laws are applicable to Aboriginal persons, this is subject to Aboriginal treaty provisions, (7) and to Parliament's overarching constitutional jurisdiction over "Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians". (8) As such, Aboriginal affairs in Canada are governed primarily by Parliament, subject always to Aboriginal rights. At the same time, provincial legislation of general application, that is not inconsistent with Aboriginal rights or federal laws, also extends to Aboriginal peoples. (9)

While Parliament has the jurisdiction to devise policies related to Aboriginal health and social welfare, those which have been developed to date have not been sufficient to overcome the shameful history of neglect toward Indigenous peoples. In the area of health alone, numerous studies reflect the disproportionate burden of illness sustained by Indigenous communities in Canada. In contrast to the non-Indigenous population, Aboriginal peoples have higher mortality rates across all age groups, and their infant mortality rate is twice to three times the national average. (10) Moreover, their propensity for diabetes, cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and arthritis is much higher than that of Canadians. (11)

The impact on the health of Aboriginal adults is not the sole legacy of their historical marginalization. Aboriginal children suffer from excessive rates of meningitis, otitis media, respiratory illnesses and iron deficiency anaemia. (12) The most striking disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal pediatric health is found in the increased rates of Aboriginal children with type 2 diabetes. Arguably, the psychosocial health of Aboriginal youth is an equal or greater cause for concern: depression, suicide and substance abuse rates among Aboriginal teens are alarming. (13) Like psychosocial illness, diabetes is cyclical, bearing the potential to pass from one generation to the next. Both diseases also have their roots in the effects of colonialism, and both are gravely exacerbated by poverty and social marginalization. Yet, while a study of mental health in Aboriginal communities would lend itself to a similar discussion, the focus here will be on the prevalence of diabetes among Indigenous children and yo uth in Canada.

A move away from a diet based on hunting and gathering food to a sedentary way of life and poor nutrition have contributed to an epidemic of this illness among Canada's Indigenous peoples. …

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