Natan Obed

On the first morning of the Indigenous Health Conference, Natan Obed spoke to medical professionals, press, students, and elders about challenges faced by Inuit communities, as well as the missing pieces of the healthcare puzzle.

The enormous Mississauga conference room was packed, with strangers sitting close as they listened to Obed’s bittersweet descriptions of the people from his hometown of Nain, Nunatsiavut in Newfoundland, and Iqaluit, where he now lives with his wife and two sons.

Obed specifically spoke of the mental health crisis among many Indigenous communities, which in recent years has become a more prominent fixture in the nation’s political awareness.

“Our society has changed,” he said. “There were many things that happened that had tremendously negative impacts on our communities in a very short amount of time.”

Obed named the tuberculosis epidemic after the Second World War and the residential school system among the sources of massive societal deterioration among Inuit people.

“We are still, in many ways, struggling to become more balanced with our past and our present and our future. There are many people affected by intergenerational trauma that need support.”

This past April, Chief Shisheesh of Attawapiskat spoke about being homeless and depressed even in his role as leader of the northern Ontario community.

The town, population 2000, has been regularly making headlines since 11 people attempted suicide in a single night. The government has since pledged $69 million over the next three years to respond to mental health crises in Indigenous communities across Canada.

Obed, however, spoke about the ways in which mental health initiatives do not respond effectively to crises. According to the Iqaluit resident, change must take place from the ground up.

“When someone commits suicide, people always look at the last moments before it happened,” he told the crowd. “They miss the entire lifetime that led up to this.”

He pointed to the fact that there is very little Inuit-specific information about health disparities. This neglect, he said, has led not only to physical health issues but the depression that comes from lacking a strong sense of belonging in Canada.

“We need to keep our traditions,” Obed said. “It gives our children the best chance to be successful, healthy, and proud of who they are and where they fit in Canada.”

Obed explained that he and his wife named their eldest son Panigusiq after Obed’s mother-in-law so members of the community would have strong associations with their son due to their close relationship with the boy’s grandmother.

“That is just one small example of how our kinship ties and social networks keep us together through time, a continuation of society over the course of many lifetimes.”

The Indigenous Health Conference’s brilliant first morning

The Indigenous Health Conference, which kicked off on May 26 and ran until the evening of May 27, was an enormous success. The conference room of the Hilton Mississauga Meadowvale Hotel was packed with medical professionals, students, elders, and members of the press, and smiling attendees swarmed the artisan and poster room between presentations and workshops.

The conference began with a throat singer, drummer, and dancer. After speaking about the traditional roles, clothing, songs, and dances of her Inuit tribe, she invited a member of the audience onto the stage so she could teach her how to throat sing.

There was an unmistakeable sense of community made evident by strangers easily chatting as they ate lunch and drank coffee. 683 people from across the country, each one passionate about putting an end to the nation’s Indigenous health crisis, had all gathered in one place.

“Thank-you for being here,” said Chief Isadore Day. “By being here you are fighting.”

Chief Day dedicated his keynote address to “those who never lived in this era of truth and reconciliation and who, if they were here today, would have a joy not afforded them in their lifetime.”

Among the first round of speakers were Chief Stacey LaForme and Margaret Froh, the latter of whom spoke about the role of the Métis population in Canada and the slow changes being made to recognize them as a group deserving of attention and aid.

“We need to operate with empathy and compassion,” Froh said. “There have been tons of studies done on Indigenous peoples in Canada. Many of them are not nearly specific enough to be of use.”

Less than two weeks prior, Froh was elected the first female President of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and only the day before the conference began, the Ontario government pledged $222 million to improve First Nations healthcare.

However, Froh said, the changes will not stop there.

“This conversation about reconciliation is slowly becoming more and more full,” she said. “This conversation is a critical one.”

Chief LaForme had several members of the audience wiping away tears as he read a poem about a young girl’s bravery as her family was scorned for wanting to give her traditional medicine after chemotherapy proved ineffective.

Thank you for attending the 2016 Indigenous Health Conference!

We would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to all participants and speakers for making the 2016 Indigenous Health Conference a wonderful success. Over the next few weeks we will be posting highlights from the conference on this site and the IHC facebook page. Enjoy!

Photography by Going on Dreams.
See more at the Indigenous Health Conference Facebook Page.