Cultural connection in the city plays a significant role in helping the Aboriginal population stave off addiction to illicit and prescription drugs.
The recently released results of a study undertaken by Dr. Cheryl Currie come as no surprise to Maxine Salopree, president of the Canadian Native Friendship Centre in Edmonton. But Salopree is grateful that Currie has taken the time to study the impact culture has to healthy city living.
“A lot of our world relies on studies… to support what we do.
(This study) is actually helping to promote that traditional lifestyle here in urban centres … because (Currie) is saying it is relevant, it is important to Aboriginal people,” said Salopree.
Currie, who is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Lethbridge, undertook the study in 2010 when she was a student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
The study was piqued by her research experience in Treaty 3 territory in Ontario, where she looked at addictions, both for those living in remote First Nations communities and those living in cities.
She compared what she learned there with studies conducted on Aboriginal people in others parts of the world. She determined that Aboriginal communities “highly engaged” in their culture and traditions seemed to be protected from a number of risk factors, including suicide, mental health issues and addictions.
“In Canada, more Aboriginal people are now living in cities than (Aboriginal) communities and yet we know so little about factors that can protect their health and how they’re doing,” said Currie.
This prompted Currie to look at culture and how it related to addictions in an urban setting.
She created an Aboriginal advisory committee and together they decided to use the Vancouver Index as a means to measure culture participation.
“What’s great about the Vancouver Index is that it asks people how much you practice your traditional culture as you define that to be, how much you practice your traditional values as you define that to be,” said Currie. “I put the word Aboriginal in there.”
Currie’s questionnaire was completed by 60 Aboriginal students in the first study and then 381 Aboriginal adults in the second study.
Participants defined Aboriginal spiritual ceremonies as the top value. Cultural events were next, followed by respecting spirituality, Earth, family, self and others.
“They made a big distinction between going to a Sundance versus going to a powwow. They’re both cultural, but one has spiritual significance,” said Currie.
Currie also asked questions about drug use, alcohol, and other risk behaviours. She compared those answers with the practise of tradition and culture.
“Statistically what I found was that culture was a protective factor. So, as their score for culture went up, their score on prescription drug problems went down dramatically, the score on illicit drug problems went down dramatically. So there was this trend in the data,” she said.
While Currie’s sample population seems small considering Edmonton has the second highest urban Aboriginal population in the country, she says the sample was enough to extrapolate the larger picture.
Currie says she was surprised at how strongly Aboriginal people reported practising their culture in the city.
“We have this myth in Canada that when Aboriginal people choose to move to the cities, they’re giving up their culture,” she said. “What this study found is that’s not true. Aboriginal people who live in cities are practising their cultural fiercely.”
Friendship centres play an essential role in helping Aboriginal people keep in touch with their culture and traditions, Currie says.
“If anything, we need those centres to grow, to reach out to more people,” she said.
Salopree agrees. She says friendship centres provide guidance and connection, and programs to support what has been taught in the communities. And those programs are not entertainment but a spiritual connection to the Creator.
Aboriginal people with strong ties to their culture and language have high self-esteem, said Salopree.
“When a person is given those gifts, of drumming and dancing, for example, it comes with responsibility to respect those gifts from the Creator. It’s part of the respect for the Creator and part of the respect for the gift is the reason why they abstain from alcohol and drugs,” she said.
This respect leads to people living a traditional lifestyle, whether back home or in the city, said Salopree.
Currie, who is from Winnipeg, has been approached by researchers in Winnipeg to repeat the study. According to the latest Statistics Canada numbers, Winnipeg is home to the largest urban Aboriginal population. Currie and her partners are in the process of organizing a Winnipeg Aboriginal Advisory Committee to guide the project.