As of 2001, 976,305 people in Canada identified themselves as Aboriginal (3% of Canadians). Seventy percent of Aboriginal people live off reserve; 62% identify themselves as Indian, 30% as Métis and 4 percent as Inuit. Canada's aboriginal population is diverse in ancestry, history and culture. There are 630 First Nations (Bands), comprising 52 Nations or cultural groups and more than 50 languages. While the overall health status of Aboriginal people in Canada is not as high as the population generally, it has improved over the last 20 years. Significant improvements have been made in various aspects of Aboriginal health; for example, infant death rates and the death rate from circulatory disease are decreasing, cancer death rates among Aboriginal people are lower than the national average, and communicable disease is coming under control.
However, Indigenous Canadians still show higher death rates for respiratory, circulatory, gastrointestinal and infectious disease, as well as parasitic infection. Diabetes is one of the most serious chronic conditions among Aboriginal people in Canada. Aboriginal Canadians are much more likely than the general population to die from injuries, poisoning and suicide, and these relatively high rates are likely due in part to higher rates of substance abuse.
There is currently little clear information describing substance use problems among Canadian Aboriginal peoples. Statistics on violent death (including suicide, homicide, poisoning/overdose, accidents and drownings) provide some indication, and as a population, Aboriginal peoples have rates of violent death much greater than the Canadian population as a whole. Aboriginal adolescent suicide rates are much higher than the national adolescent rate. It appears that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are more prevalent among Aboriginal people. Use of solvents for intoxication among children in some Aboriginal communities is a serious concern. In some remote Indigenous communities, gasoline sniffing, primarily by young people, is said to have contributed to a systematic breakdown of community and family relationships. Among Aboriginal people in Canada's territories, indications are that while a smaller percentage identify themselves as drinkers than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, those that do drink are more likely to drink heavily. There are indications that tobacco abuse and injecting drug use are also particular concerns among Aboriginal populations, with, for example, one in five Indigenous street youth in seven major Canadian cities reporting they had injected drugs.
Issues of poverty, low education, unstable family structure, unemployment, physical abuse, poor social support networks and involvement with the law are precipitated or aggravated by discrimination, the effects of residential schools, and barriers to health care such as language and the lack of culturally sensitive services. While these issues present a considerable challenge for which substance use is identified as a coping mechanism, many Aboriginal communities have succeeded in preventing or reducing substance use problems among their people. These communities are successfully applying community-wide, culturally-based solutions to problems that are largely socially determined.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples had identified the dimensions of community health that need to be addressed for the improved health and well-being of Aboriginal peoples:
- Poverty and social assistance,
- Shelter, water and sanitation facilities, both at the individual and community levels,
- Environmental conditions, including pollution and regeneration of land and habitat.
Aboriginal substance use: research issues
McKenzie, Diane (ed.)
Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 1994.
Canadian profile : alcohol, tobacco and other drugs = Profil canadien : l'alcool, le tabac, et les autres drogues
Single, Eric; Van Truong, Minh; Adlaf, Edward; Ialomiteaunu, Anca (eds.)
Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse; Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 1999.
Enhanced surveillance of Canadian street youth phase II: self identified Aboriginal youth a sub analysis
Ottawa, ON: The author, 2000.
Health promotion theory and strategies: module one community prevention training series
Edmonton, AB: Nechi Training, Research and Health Promotion Institute, 1996.
Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996.
Towards holistic wellness: the Aboriginal Peoples report of the Standing Committee on Health = Vers le mieux-être holistique: les peuples autochtones rapport du Comité permanent de la santé
Canada Parliament House of Commons
Ottawa, ON: Queen's Printer, 1995.