The national report on First Nations Health, released June 14 by the First Nations Information Governance Centre, said little has changed in such health indicators as housing over the last five years since their last report.
Mould and mildew still plague First Nations housing, with 51 per cent of households dealing with the nasty stuff, as compared with 44 per cent in 2003.
Further to that, the First Nations Regional Health Survey (RHS) has found that two-thirds, or 70.8 per cent, of First Nations adults report that their household was in need of some type of repair, compared to 25.7 per cent of the general Canadian population. Of those repairs, 37.3 per cent were considered major.
Housing was just one of the health indicators looked at in the study, which gathers information every four years about health, wellness, health determinants, and about the concerns and issues of First Nations living in First Nations communities across Canada.
Overcrowding was another concern, with 23.4 per cent of First Nations adults reporting they were living in conditions with more than one person per habitable room. This is an increase from the 2002/03 report which put that number at about 17 per cent.
The main water supply in First Nations communities was found, in 35.8 per cent of adults surveyed, unsafe to drink year round.
Jane Gray, the manager of the RHS, said “This is the unfortunate reality for many First Nations reserves across Canada.”
The Regional Health Survey began in the mid-1990s after the federal government commissioned seven national surveys on health and living conditions which excluded First Nations.
First Nations decided to take the initiative, develop their own surveys with the support of Health Canada and regional partners, and the RHS process was born 17 years ago.
Language revitalization is also an indicator of healthy First Nations communities.
The RHS reports that 86 per cent of youth 12 to 17 years old living in nearly every First Nation and northern community felt that learning their own Indigenous language was “very important” or “somewhat important.”
The good news is that 56.3 per cent of First Nations youth across Canada reported speaking or understanding their own languages, with more than one-third of First Nations youth speaking their own languages sometimes during each day.
“Our survey shows that First Nations youth seem to have a hunger for, a longing to learn their own languages,” said Gray. “Young people have been telling us this for some time now at meetings and gatherings. Our health survey shows that this isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s a reality, and it’s being driven by those First Nations youth.”
The majority of adults surveyed believed cultures on reserve and in northern communities had either improved or stayed the same.
This is encouraging news the centre reports after decades of government policies that sought to eradicate First Nations languages and cultures.
About 67 per cent of First Nations adults “sometimes” participated in cultural events in their territories. The RHS found that adults who frequently participated in community cultural events “were less likely to be depressed, more likely to perceive control over their lives, more likely to perceive greater social support, and less likely to use licit and illicit substances.”
Four out of five First Nations adults considered traditional ceremonies or spirituality at least “somewhat” important, although young adults were less likely to feel the same way.
“We’ve seen a lot of hard work on the part of First Nations to stop the erosion and rebuild their languages and cultural practices over the years,” said Grey. “Our health survey shows that First Nations have made some gains but questions remain whether the support will be there for language programs to introduce another generation of youth to their own ceremonies and beliefs.”
A minority of respondents (21 per cent) said they had visited a traditional healer in the 12 months prior to the survey. Despite the low numbers, said Gray, “these figures are up from 15 per cent in our previous RHS in 2003. It shows that First Nations are making progress to revive their own cultural practices despite the almost constant pressures to give them up.”
But with the good news comes a lot of bad.
“Nearly 50 per cent of children on reserves live in poverty – a significant increase,” said Gray. “There are more people reporting an annual income of less than $10,000 a year in this survey than our previous one. Poverty on-reserves is getting worse.”
The RHS is the most extensive and accurate snapshot of on-reserve health and living conditions anywhere. The RHS has also become a worldwide model for Indigenous research.