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Aboriginal rate of diabetes may be linked to culture loss

A University of Alberta study could link the loss of indigenous mother tongue and culture to the increasing cases of Type 2 diabetes among aboriginal communities in Canada.

Diabetes has been discussed and confronted among aboriginal communities, research organizations and other groups for some years, according to Senior Research Coordinator of BRAID Research Group Richard Oster. These speculations became evidence when Oster observed lower rates of diabetes in relation to native language knowledge — a measure of traditional culture — among 31 Alberta aboriginal communities for two years.

Oster’s findings were published in the International Journal for Equity in Health last October, stating that communities that know more about their traditional culture are less susceptible to diabetes.

Diabetes is not the only health issue Aboriginal Peoples face. While interviewing Elders and community leaders, Oster found problems such as sexually transmitted infections, substance abuse and mental health issues may be linked to culture loss. Previous studies have suggested the relation between youth suicides and culture loss in aboriginal communities as well.

“I think (culture) would relate to other health problems as well,” Oster said. “We’ve done a lot of work looking at diabetes, but we start to realize that the underlying problems are the same for other health conditions that aboriginal people are suffering.”

Once the original cause of this pattern is explored, diabetes and other health issues appear to be less of a coincidence and perhaps more of a reflection on the status of racism in Alberta. Oster’s research found that community members may feel that these needs, including the physical activity and healthy diet that their culture promotes, have not been met due to factors such as poverty and social inequities in income.

Oster’s research found that Aboriginal Peoples say they believe their culture would be more secure and that they would have more self-determination to pursue a healthy lifestyle if it were not for the historical trauma that affects them, and the lack of support from the government.

Angela Grier, former First Nations leader and co-author of Oster’s project, agreed.

“The current government that is in place does not want to support aboriginal people because they’ve been slashing their fundamental funding,” Grier said.

“And if you know about funding for First Nations, it’s like a third of what mainstream organizations of the same stature would receive. So, there’s definitely a race issue there.”

For the rate of diabetes specifically, Oster is part of the Edmonton-based organization BRAID (Believing we can Reduce Aboriginal Incidence of Diabetes). BRAID works with Metis and First Nations communities to corroborate the screening and preventing of diabetes and other chronic illnesses in aboriginal individuals. They are currently working with First Nation reserve Maskwacis — formerly Hobbema — on a project relating to pregnancy and diabetes.

Oster and Grier agree that the first step to prevent further issues with diabetes and other problems aboriginals face due in part to discrimination is to collaborate with aboriginal communities. Communicating with them can give a better understanding on what is needed to improve their standards of living, Oster said.

“They used to be a really healthy population, and as a result of our government and colonization and all that has led to so many different health problems now.”

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