History, A Determinant of Health: An Introduction to Indigenous Canada

A while back we started the series, “History, A Determinant of Health”, to highlight how the past actions of nations and governments around world is still impacting the health outcomes of people living today. We’ve talked about the history of global health and its present footprints. We’ve explored intergenerational trauma and its drastic effects on various communities. We’ve also focused on Guatemala, with an in-depth look into how colonialism, politics, and other factors resulted in the extreme marginalization of different ethnic groups within the country. In the next part of this series, we are going to bring things a little closer to home and dive into the layered issue of Indigenous healthcare in Canada. However, before we get started, it is important for us to give a brief background on the history and culture of the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

Indigenous peoples

The term “Indigenous peoples” is a collective name that is used to describe all original peoples of North America and their descendants.

There are three distinct groups of Indigenous peoples in Canada: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. In Canada, the accepted term for people who are Indigenous and who do not identify as Inuit or Métis is First Nations. In the past, these people were referred to as “Indians” or “Aboriginals”. However, these terms are considered offensive due to their colonial roots and perpetuation of prejudice, and discrimination. Therefore, these terms should not be used.

These are 3 distinct groups with unique histories, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. The Indigenous peoples of Canada have lived and thrived here since before Canada was ever known as “Canada”. Historically, they governed their own lands and resources, and had their own set of governments, laws, policies, and practices. Their societies were very complex and included systems for trade and commerce, building relationships, managing resources, and spirituality.

More than 1.67 million people in Canada identify themselves as Indigenous. They are currently the fastest growing population in Canada, as well as the youngest. There are approximately 630 different Indigenous communities across Canada – about half of which are in British Columbia and Ontario. According to the 2016 Census, there are over 70 distinct Indigenous languages recognized across the country, and UNESCO’s world atlas of languages in danger recognizes over 80 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, including those that no longer have speakers.

Indigenous Culture

Communities and Elders

Indigenous cultures are traditionally inclusive. Factors like gender, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, or age, are seen as irrelevant to whether an individual can be an integral part of the community. In Indigenous cultures, Elders are cherished and respected. Elders are chosen and appointed by their respective communities not based on age, but rather on who has the most knowledge on the history, values, and teachings of the culture. Elders are seen as valuable role models and teachers for all members of the community, and they play the important role of passing along oral histories.

Oral traditions

In Indigenous communities, oral storytelling is a significant aspect of the culture. It is how values, family, and community histories are passed along from one generation to another. through oral storytelling. Oral histories and stories are essential to maintaining Indigenous identity and culture. There are appointed and chosen people within each community that have these oral histories memorized, and they keep this information alive by repeating these stories. Indigenous cultures also tell stories and histories through symbolic objects. Carved totem poles and house posts are a good example of this kind of visual language.

Ownership and The Potlatch

Every Indigenous community, and even family, has its own historical and traditional stories, songs, or dances. Different communities have different rules about ownership. There are particular “songs, names, symbols, and dances” that only belong to some communities or individual families. They cannot be used, retold, danced, or sung without permission. Other songs and dances are openly shared.

The Potlatch is the “cultural, political, economic, and educational heart” of Indigenous communities of the Northwest Coast. A Potlatch may be held to celebrate births, marriages, or deaths; settle disputes; raise totem poles; or pass on names, songs, dances, or other responsibilities. They are huge events, and they sometimes go on for several days. Traditionally, they are composed of two important events: the host giving away gifts, and the recording, in oral history, of the events and arrangements included in the ceremony.

The Indigenous peoples of Canada are a vibrant and unique community. They hold a significant place in the history of Canada and are an integral part of why Canada can stand as a nation today. Unfortunately, time and time again, they have been let down in various ways by the government and the healthcare system. In our next blog of this series, we will spend some time on the history of Indigenous Canada, and go into depth on how systemic racism has resulted in the widespread health disparities that we see among Indigenous communities in Canada.

Together we can make an impact on the health of the nations and the generations to come.

The mission of WHEF is to increase accessibility to medications and supplies for healthcare facilities in Guatemala and Grenada. If you are interested in hearing more about the work we are doing, or in connecting with us, you can visit our website, check out our instagram or facebook, or sign up to receive our newletters. If you would like to support us in our work, please donate here.

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