Study reveals shocking premature death rates

A recent study Walking in their shoes published by Anishnawbe Health Toronto finds that the average age of death for users of four “Aboriginal” health and social service centers in Toronto are shockingly below the average Torontonian at 37 years. The Onkwehon:we male clients who died over the period of the study at the four centers had the average age of 34, with women at 41.

The study’s method was to review the medical history of 43 clients of Anishnawbe Health Toronto who died 2012-2013, as well that of 66 other individuals across three other agencies. The study then coupled this research with interviews with 20 community members who knew people among the deceased in an attempt to identify “root causes” of these premature deaths.

Acknowledging that “Indigenous peoples face some of the heaviest burdens of ill health,” the study unsurprisingly concluded that the “loss of culture, unstable housing and homelessness, a lack of education and stable jobs, and a lack of social supports” is the result of “histories of colonization, marginalization, discrimination, and racism.”

From the interviews conducted emerged narratives of the deceased that traced many people’s health issues back to the “overarching theme of colonial policies,” with sub-themes of “assimilation policies, systematic discrimination, and cultural disruption.” Among the colonial policies named in the study included the “60s scoop” period when Indigenous peoples made up as many as 40% of children in foster care in Canada, and the violence people experienced in Residential schools.

“[The deceased’s] brother was [raped] by the priest there,” or [The deceased] had bent over to do up her shoe, and because she was showing so much leg, a nun beat her with a yardstick. She was just a little girl,” are just a couple of the harrowing narratives among the many recounted in the study.

Though initial media coverage at CTV last week misreported the study’s findings as accounting for the “life expectancy” of all clients at the four centers (as opposed to just those who died over a defined period), comparison with other life expectancy stats across the world are instructive for demonstrating how serious the problem is. In 2010 Afghanistan was ranked by the World Health Organization as having one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, at an average of 47 years. Afghanis – not unlike Onkwehon:we peoples – have suffered decades of colonial violence and occupation by foreign powers, which included the Canadian military between 2001-2014. Yet, the life expectancy of Afghanis as a whole is still a decade above the average age of death for the subjects of the
Walking in their Shoes study.

In light of the City of Toronto’s declaration of 2013-2014 being the ‘Year of Truth and Reconciliation,” Anishnawbe Health Toronto has called for a “multi-year action plan” with “defined and measurable outcomes”, that should consist of more partnerships with the Aboriginal community from the public and private sector, an Aboriginal employment strategy, better representation of Aboriginal people in municipal agencies and corporations, and decreasing the “empathy gap” through “cultural competency training.”

The Two Row Times interviewed the study’s principal author, Dr. Chandrakant Shah, who was asked how effective these recommendations could be in light of ongoing policies of colonization in Canada, including massively disproportionate incarceration rates and ongoing land dispossession and resource plunder.

“We need to address the empathy gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and to do this we need to first address history. If you don’t know this history, and you only hear about the adverse conditions Aboriginal people are facing, people shake their heads and may blame these people.” Relating Indigenous people’s health issues to the history of colonialism, Dr. Shah said “I call what’s happening here a “delayed tsumami effect.”

“I don’t want pity or compassion for Aboriginal people, I want empathy. I want people to walk in Aboriginal peoples shoes, before we can really begin to address the policies and programs needed. We need a lot of education to get there.”

The presentation made by Dr. Shah to Toronto’s Aboriginal Affairs Committee on March 26, 2014 was forwarded to City Hall’s Executive Committee and was set to be discussed at the April 23, 2014 meeting. The report was also forwarded to the Directors of Equity, Diversity and Human Rights, and Strategic Recruitment Compensation and Employment Services for consideration as part of the city’s programs and policies.


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