Conference on aboriginal injuries reveals startling statistics

There is a group of people in Canada whose youth population is growing at twice the rate of the general population, yet this same group has a significantly higher suicide rate than the general population.
This group is six times more likely to die by drowning than the rest of Canadians, and the rate of death due to injury for this group is nearly five times greater than that of the general population.
The group in question are aboriginal Canadians—and these statistics generally hold true for aboriginal populations around the world.
The National Indian and Inuit Community Health Representatives Organization held the first National Aboriginal Injury Prevention Conference in Winnipeg earlier this month to discuss injury data among aboriginal populations, the causes for increased injuries, and what can be done about it.
“I was shocked by the numbers,” said Kate Brant, a health educator at Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre who attended the conference.
Injury, both intentional and unintentional, is the leading cause of death among aboriginal people. It causes more deaths than diabetes, cancer, or any other disease.
In a Health Canada report entitled “Trends in First Nations Mortality, 1979-1993,” the four leading causes of death among First Nations people have remained the same since 1979: injury and poisoning, diseases of the circulatory system, neoplasms (cancers), and diseases of the respiratory system.
Health Canada defines injury as “the transfer of energy that results in harm to an individual,” which can be caused by motor vehicle accidents, suicides, drownings, homicides, fires, poisonings, overdoses, falls, domestic violence, and natural disasters.
Brant learned some shocking statistics at the conference. In Canada, the rate of death due to injury is five times higher among aboriginals than among the general population, the rate of poverty is four times higher, and the rate of incarceration is six times higher.
According to the Canadian Institute of Child Health, in 2000, “aboriginal disability rates [were] reported at 31 percent—double the national rate—with a large proportion being attributed to injuries.”
But the suicide statistics are perhaps the most disturbing of all. The suicide rate among aboriginal Canadians is eight times higher than the national average, Brant said.
“Suicide is a rampant problem in aboriginal communities, and often occurs at a younger age than in the general population,” Health Canada wrote in its report.
For every 100,000 people, 125.7 First Nations males aged 15-24 will commit suicide, compared to 24.1 non-aboriginal males in the same age group.
As well, 35 First Nations women aged 15-24 will commit suicide, compared to 4.5 non-aboriginal women.
“Suicide accounts for up to a quarter of all injury deaths in First Nations people,” Health Canada noted.
The report lists various factors that attribute to the increased risk of injury to aboriginal populations. Geographic location often plays a role. If a community is a great distance from an emergency facility, it becomes more difficult to get timely treatment.
“The risk of drowning is especially high in northern areas because low water temperatures increase the likelihood of hypothermia and consequent death,” according to the Health Canada report, “Unintentional and Intentional Injury Profile for Aboriginal People in Canada, 1990-99.”
“In addition, northern areas may have less access to swimming lessons and training in life-saving methods.”
But Brant said there’s a much deeper problem. She spoke of the history of aboriginal people in Canada, as well as other countries, of a culture undermined and minimized, and the stifling of identity.
“What comes from that? Angry people and increased rates of violence,” she remarked.
Increased rates of injury are a clear sign of a people with a low feeling of self-worth. “It comes from not feeling good in your heart about being an aboriginal person. So you take risks in all aspects of your life,” Brant said.
Health Canada noted in its report that while injury rates have gone down in the last several years, the suicide rate has not.
“Suicide rates have not changed for the last 25 years,” Brant said. “So whatever intervention they’re doing now, it’s not working.”
It is important to get the word out and to raise awareness, she added.
“First, we have to wake up the government to the problem. They need to start putting money aside for injury prevention,” she said.
Currently, only three percent of the federal health budget is spent on injury prevention.
Brant said governments often won’t invest in preventive measures “because you don’t have real tangible data with prevention.”
“The cost of government inaction needs to be correlated with the savings we’d have if we had some immediate intervention,” she explained.
Brant said she also hopes to take what she learned at the conference and put it into action at the local level. “We should set up an Aboriginal Injury Prevention Coalition for this area,” she noted.
She said each reserve, in both Canada and the United States, has a CHR, or community health representative. Brant said if CHRs could collect data regarding injury in their communities, they then could apply to the government for funding based on those stats.
One of the speakers at the conference, Dennis Renville from the United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota, suggested there should be an injury prevention worker working alongside every CHR in every aboriginal community.
“That’s a huge undertaking, but it’s got to start somewhere,” Brant said.