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Image courtesy of Going on Dreams

The event was an enormous success, and we’re already planning for the next one! If you want to make a difference in the medical community, join us in 2018 for the 3rd Biennial Indigenous Health Conference.

Check back in the fall for dates, or subscribe to our e-mail list so you’re the first to hear the news! We can’t wait to see you there.

Indigenous Health Conference plenary tackles nation’s environmental issues

IHC Highlight - 3
Image courtesy of Visually Sound

On May 27th, the second day of the 2016 Indigenous Health Conference, a panel composed of David Suzuki, Chief Roland Willson, Chief Lynette Tsakoza, Chief Simon Fobister, and Professor Donna Mergler addressed the devastating consequences of the Canadian government’s environmental abuse.

The discussion centred on how pollution is a component of systemic racism, and how it has contributed to the Indigenous health crisis in Canada.

“I believe the challenge now is to acquire that continued sense of connection that Indigenous people have held onto despite all the years of disease, of residential schools and cultural genocide,” said Suzuki. “This should be a priority.”

Chief Willson spoke about how that connection is being severed for the West Moberly First Nation. A recent study found that 98% of their fish samples contain mercury levels above provincial guidelines.

He pointed out several areas in which the province of British Columbia has not adhered to laws and treaties designed to protect Canadian wildlife, and the crowd was audibly saddened as he shared stories of having to put down beavers and bison suffering from mercury poisoning.

Professor Mergler, whose neurophysiology research focuses on the neurotoxic effects of exposure to environmental pollutants, examined the ways in which Minamata disease has a deep and far-reaching effect.

“This is going to be a crash course on why mercury is bad for you,” she said as she stepped up the podium, an understatement that caused the Mississauga conference room to fill with laughter.

According to Professor Mergler, everyone consumes mercury, but many First Nations people are subject to much higher levels because they are exposed to the “point sources” of mercury, including micro-electric dams, municipal dumping sites, and even logging.

“The effects of mercury poisoning… begin with small alterations, yet these small alterations can have very important community effects,” she said, noting that many children are born with no symptoms of Minimata and later develop the debilitating neurological disease.

As an example, she used the Grassy Narrows First Nation crisis, which has been making headlines in recent months due to a protest campaign demanding that Premier Kathleen Wynne undue the long-lasting contamination caused by a chemical plant that closed in the 1970’s.
On the first day of the conference, Natan Obed had spoken about the psychological effects of being neglected by one’s country. The members of the panel also probed deeper, discussing not only the horrifying physical effects of contamination, but the additional emotional loss.

“They’re taking our water source away, they’re taking our home away, they’re taking our animals… everything,” said Chief Tsakoza. “If someone comes in to my home and tries to take it away, I will fight to protect it.”

For the full video recording of the plenary, visit the Indigenous Health Conference Facebook page.


Natan Obed

Image courtesy of Going on Dreams

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

Image courtesy of Visually Sound

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 Dr. Anna Banerji.
See more at the Indigenous Health Conference Facebook Page.