Battling Diabetes & Obesity with Economic Development







The modern-day tuberculosis of First Nations is killing Aboriginal people three to five times higher than the general Canadian population.

Diabetes is caused by poor diet and lack of exercise. Accompanying diabetes and often the leading cause it, is obesity. Type II diabetes causes kidney failure, cardiovascular disease, blindness, lower limb amputation, increased susceptibility to infection, and increased risk of tuberculosis reactivation. In Manitoba, 90% of lower limb loss among Aboriginal people are people with diabetes, compared with 10% of Canada’s general population. Once considered an adult disease, Type II diabetes is now appearing in children under age 14. Before 1980, this type of diabetes was unrecorded for children. By 1997, 58 cases were reported in Manitoba Aboriginal girls.

Like diabetes, obesity shortens life expectancy. For Aboriginal people whose lives already lag behind Canada’s mainstream population by 8.1 years for males and 5.5 years for females, the question is, how much more time can Aboriginal people lose? On average, Aboriginal men only live to 68.9 years and women 76.6 years.
Obesity though is a growing problem, so large in fact the World Health Organization (WHO) in November 2006 called obesity “the greatest epidemic in developed countries” – countries seemingly with everything except good health.

In First Nations, health problems are one of the few “developed nation” characteristics gained. A 2006 study completed by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) found that over half of Aboriginal youth are overweight or obese (58.5%). The problem is getting bigger with each generation. Aboriginal children ages 3-11 years are less active and consume more junk and processed foods than older Aboriginal children. A compulsion for video games and television are keeping them on their butts indoors when not long ago kids spent time outside kicking soccer balls, and raiding gardens for fresh carrots, peas and strawberries. Replace the healthy vegetables with treats of potato chips, soft drinks and candies, and those treats suddenly become the Halloween trick. Then in their teenage years mix in “adult vices” like cigarettes and alcohol and supplement those addictions with dropping out of high school, and you have a recipe for self-destruction. High school dropouts earn less income and account for 85% of funds spent on income assistance. They also have poorer health and higher social problems than graduates.

There are more factors to obesity than just education and diet – education and residency are connected too. Neighbourhoods of low education levels are more likely to have overweight and obese residents… even if an individual’s education level is high. The AFN study too found that community size also influenced youth obesity. Aboriginal communities with populations of 1500 or more had a larger rate of childhood obesity than small Aboriginal communities… the bigger the bigger.

These two findings on location may reflect the value of the community to government and business. Lower educated neighbourhoods and communities fall victim to the affluent. The more prosperous a neighbourhood, the more able they are to lobby government, the more likely developers and governments will invest, so resources are made available. The underprivileged who are unrepresented may lack parks and fitness facilities, people may be reluctant to go outdoors in fear of safety, and they may not know how to get government to address their concerns. Gold River First Nation on Vancouver Island suffered from a polluting sawmill located across the river for decades until the government finally moved them in the late 1990s.

Obesity like type II diabetes differs from the former epidemics Aboriginal people suffered; these diseases are self-induced and within each person’s ability to change. Health is cured by the loving care of people, communities, and especially good governance. It takes leadership, planning, and commitment… and believe it, economic development is an essential prescription.

As for small Aboriginal communities where youth are fitter, the majority are in rural and isolated areas where outdoor activities are abundant, traditional hunting and gathering thrive, and fast food outlets are non-existent. Health there reflects individuals’ lifestyle and cultural activities than government will and modernization.

Governments at times take action. In the mid 70’s Canada had a program called “ParticipAction” delivered in schools. Inspired by the Montreal Olympics, school kids earned gold, silver and bronze badges for achieving different fitness levels. British Columbia recently launched “ActNOW” to get kids and families active. As for Aboriginal people, health and fitness seem unimportant. Canada passed health responsibility to provinces without increased funds, and First Nations are accepting this same empty wallet. The result is diminishing health. Decision-makers determine the care Aboriginals receive based on formula and budget, not on the best-interest of the individual… people the decision-makers have never met. Initiatives that would promote health like self-directed care, community facilities, and economic development are considered discretionary.

In some areas, Aboriginals are influential. In B.C.’s interior, the Siska First Nation near Lytton saw forestry eradicating their watershed. It was threatening the health of Chief Fred Sampson’s community of 292 people. Sampson encouraged a program to help his people demonstrate their Aboriginal rights and title and revive cultural activities to protect their territory. Through non-timber forestry of harvesting berries and plants, Siska Traditions began. It makes low-sugar jelly spreads, syrups, teas and soaps while teaching culturally sustainable practices and food safety employing community members, some who were social assistance dependent. Siska’s store adds to the local tourism industry.

Aboriginal owned companies are also accepting health responsibility. Near MacTier, Ontario, the Moose Deer Point First Nation business Niigon Technologies implemented health programs into employee and community relations initiatives offering fitness incentives like running shoes, and support to community members to quit smoking.
Communities that have not considered economic development and community planning as an antidote to their health epidemic are contributing to their people’s demise.

WHO said “Agricultural policy influences public health by affecting the supply, availability, safety and affordability of foods.” Governments need to ensure “the availability of healthy food at a reasonable price for the entire population and develop the local and regional infrastructure for good accessibility of commercial services.” Shamefully junk and processed foods are easily available, can be less costly and so easily chosen over healthy foods.

Agriculture and Agri-food Canada too have been working with First Nations to develop the first national Aboriginal agriculture strategy to promote Aboriginal involvement in the industry from community production and planning to cultural foods, farms and food production. Two Aboriginal-driven agencies, the First Nations Agriculture Association in B.C. and the Indian Agriculture Council of Manitoba Inc. offer Aboriginals agricultural support in local horticulture, advocacy, training, and provide technical advice.

Community economic development should encourage grocery stores, community gardens and farmers markets over attracting fast food restaurants and convenience stores. Hesquiaht First Nation with support from CMHC’s Aboriginal Housing Committee of B.C. built community gardens to bring fresh vegetables to this isolated island village.

Aboriginals need education on nutrition and lifestyles with incentives that make eating healthy fun. Incentives and prizes should promote health and physical activity – instead of electronic games and televisions, why not sports equipment, cultural activities and events? Trade fast food for grocery stores, candy bars for fruit, video games for street hockey, and cigarettes for carrot sticks.

AUTHOR: Beverley O’Neil, July 2005