Aboriginal health issues attributed to colonization
There’s no shortage of health-related problems in Canada’s Indigenous population. Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, addiction and suicide are rampant, and Dr. Carrie Bourassa, the newly appointed chair of Northern and Indigenous Health at Health Sciences North Research Institute is more attuned to them than most.
“Aboriginal health issues are really complex and rooted in our history of colonization,” she said. “We still have the Indian Act… and as long as we have intergenerational trauma, we will continue to see a gap between Indigenous health and the rest of Canada, so we have to figure out how to address the impact of colonization. It’s not only in our history. It’s still very much in our present.”
Decolonization, contends Bourassa, means “putting control into Indigenous peoples’ hands because when you can’t control your life, that’s a problem. Most Canadians take it for granted. We live our lives every day without that impediment, but that’s not the case for Indigenous Canadians.”
Bourassa gives the example of Aboriginal leaders asking for a program to address a suicide epidemic, but having to go through the hoops of obtaining permission from Health Canada.
Indigenous Canadians have to have the ability to self govern and make their own decisions, she said.
“It is so vital to be able to run your own life – for the youth to say, ‘This is what we need, this is what we want’ and to be able to do it, and not to have people come and say, ‘We know what you need.’”
Bourassa, who has a Masters degree in Political Science and a PhD in Social Studies from the University of Regina, served for 15 years as a professor of Indigenous Health Studies in the Department of Indigenous Health, Education and Social Work at First Nations University of Canada in Regina.
Shortly after starting her new job in Sudbury in October, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) announced her appointment as scientific director of the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples’ Health.
Bourassa will devote 50 per cent of her time to each role.
She will continue working on several research projects in Saskatchewan, where she has a staff of eight researchers, a supervisor and Indigenous community-based research programs focused on HIV/AIDS and dementia.
One Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant she will be bringing to Health Sciences North will focus on the development of a cultural safety evaluation training and research lab to help people feel safe in hospital settings.
“That is and will remain a priority for HSN. There has been feedback that Indigenous people don’t feel safe in hospital, so the hospital wants to find a way to create that safe space,” said Bourassa. “If Indigenous people feel safe in hospital, they will seek treatment earlier.
“It’s a nationwide problem, which is why I sought out the grant in the first place. We need to understand how we can work with physicians and clinicians to create that safe space. We’ve seen reports across Canada for years of unsafe care for Indigenous people, including reports of racism, stigma and discrimination. These are systemic issues that need to be addressed.”
Bourassa doesn’t intend to “rush” into new research projects with a specific focus on Northern Ontario. Her priority, she said, is to first build relationships with the communities in the region and find out what their needs are.
She’ll look to the “communities to define the issues that need to be addressed” and then find the resources to carry out the research.
“I don’t want to focus on all the negatives. The communities know what’s going on and they don’t want to hear the negatives over and over. They want to know how we are going to address them.”
As scientific director of the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples’ Health, Bourassa will be responsible for implementing an action plan unveiled in November by CIHR president Dr. Alain Beaudet. She’ll help to develop the research calls for the Institute and ensure that the research being done reflects the needs of the Indigenous community.