Panel links Arctic health to climate change

Panel links Arctic health to climate change
The plenary panel on communities and health welcomed experts from around the globe to weigh in on the state of health care in indigenous communities. From left: Mr. Lars Anders Baer of Norway, Dr. Suzanne Stewart of the Dene Nation in Yellowknife, Dr. Henning Sloth Pederson of Greenway and Dr. Kue Young of Canada, with Dr. Alan Parkinson of the United States as the discussion’s moderator on the big screen. Opening was Canada’s Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.Photo: Mel Lefebvre.

The need for better health care in the North is a result of limited access to traditional foods, and climate change is threatening those food sources, according to an expert panel on Arctic health.

The panel, which presented at the 2012 International Polar Year conference in Montreal last week, consisted of experts in the field of indigenous health issues from Northern cultures across the globe, from Norway to Russia to the Canadian Arctic.

According to the panelists, bans and quotas on caribou and seals are forcing communities to rely on less healthy, more costly foods. In addition to the anxiety that a disconnect from ancestral roots causes, it’s making people physically sick in regions with limited medical resources.

While their findings didn’t show encouraging trends, they said there is hope for the future with the concept of sustainable development that takes indigenous knowledge into consideration, but admitted a lot of ground needs to be covered to get there.

For panelist Dr. Keu Young, a professor at the University of Toronto, the very nature of health care in the north is unjust. “The highest ranking health care expenditure is in Nunavut, at $8,000 per person, per year,” he said.

This dollar amount takes transportation, communication and environmental factors into account for getting individuals the health care they need. When the price is too high, communities simply see less of it. Young said health care needs more subsidization.

“For poor countries with low life expectancy, a little bit of health expenditure can make a huge difference,” Young said.

“Treatments in hospitals and medical centres cost a lot of money, and I don’t think we’re the best at that,” said panelist Dr. Henning Sloth Pederson, chief medical officer at Queen Ingrid’s hospital in Greenland. “Health care (in the North) has increased by 150 per cent over the last 30 years,” said Dr. Pederson. “We have much more suicide (in Greenland), we have heart disease, more diabetes, ADHD, cancer, mental illness. This is a pattern characteristic of all indigenous people around the world.”

The panel discussion revealed that researchers and governments are beginning to understand the intricate needs of Northern communities. But there is still a long way to go before Aboriginal cultures worldwide are fully recognized as having specific nutritional, cultural and spiritual needs.

“The Arctic is getting more hectic,” said Lars Anders Baer, a caribou herder and former president of Norway’s Sami Parliament who sat on the panel. Baer addressed the importance of the United Nation’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to Baer, the declaration helped establish “the right to traditional medicines to maintain their health practices, which includes conservation of plants, so that indigenous peoples can take part in decision-making processes.”

Transforming these themes to action was the backbone of the IPY conference, which Dr. Pedersen described as the practice of sustainability in order to move beyond today’s challenges and “wake up after the party of development. We need sustainable development (in the North). That means in the environment, in culture, in politics, in society – everywhere.”

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