NEWS: Around the Arctic July 11, 2009 - 3:44 pm

Inuit hold own confab ahead of circumpolar health conference

“Those who live in the Arctic Circle face unique health challenges."

JANE GEORGE

(Updated July 13)

Inuit from across the Arctic met in Yellowknife July 9 and 10 to talk about Inuit health and wellness at the first-ever circumpolar Inuit health summit, held just before the International Congress on Circumpolar Health, also in Yellowknife, got underway July 11.

The gathering allowed participants to share information and discuss promising practices in health care, said a news release from the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

“This summit is important for all Inuit because it aims to find ways for the ICC to support improvement to Inuit health and wellness,” said Duane Smith, the president of ICC Canada, at the ICC meeting’s opening on July 9.

“It’s easy to say that our health and the health of our children is very important — we know that. But we have some big health problems confronting us and many of them are common to our people right across the Arctic,” Smith said.

Inuit health professionals from Alaska, Canada, Chukotka and Greenland attended ICC’s meeting, with the goal of developing a set of recommendations for what ICC can do to promote better Inuit health and wellness.

“Many of the health challenges we face in our different countries are similar because they are shaped in part by our shared experiences, although local conditions contribute to differences, “ Smith said.

“But whatever the differences, there’s one overarching fact which remains the same - the stark gap between the key health indicators for our people and those of the broader populations in our countries.”

Smith said ICC has an important role to play in figuring out ways of narrowing that gap.

“Those who live in the Arctic Circle face unique health challenges,” said Leona Aglukkaq, the federal health minister and Conservative MP for Nunavut, in her welcome to participants at the International Congress on Circumpolar Health, which started July 11.

While Canada has made progress in improving the health and well-being of northerners, giving $305 million over two years to improving conditions for Inuit and First Nations people, Aglukkaq admitted “there are still many hurdles to overcome.”

The indigenous people of the North are the “biggest victims” of food contaminants,  delegates to the circumpolar health conference were told.

“We put contaminants into the best food,” said Jon Øyvind Odland from the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, in his keynote address. “It’s the indigenous peoples of the North who are the biggest victims.”

About 650 students, researchers, nurses, doctors and other health professionals from Canada, United States, Russia, Norway, Greenland-Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, UK, Japan and Brazil are attending the conference.

Speakers kicked off the five-day event by reminding participants that they have a responsibility to help the mainly indigenous peoples of the circumpolar world deal with such health issues as contaminants, climate change and the trauma of cultural loss.

“We need your help” to tackle the “troubling issues facing too many Canadian Inuit” was the message to conference participants from Nellie Cournoyea, the chair and chief executive officer of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp., who also gave a keynote address on Sunday morning.

“I think something is wrong,” Cournoyea said, emphasizing that medical researchers should work more closely with communities to make their studies meaningful.

More focus on community concerns could encourage the federal government to give more money to improve education levels, build more housing and deal with the fall-out of addictions, trauma and mental health issues among Inuit, she said.

Researchers were also reminded to leave a solid legacy of health-related research from the International Polar Year, which ended last March, for the next one, which won’t happen until 2057.

On Sunday afternoon, participants broke up into sessions to discuss such issues as mental health, indigenous research and men’s health, which are set to continue until July 16.

There are more than 400 presentations during dozens of separate sessions scheduled during the conference.

Its agenda also includes a fish fry in Weledeh, a cultural evening and a northern performers’ concert at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, featuring singer Tanya Tagaq, among others.

The circumpolar health movement has grown since the 1960s when medical scientists, health care specialists, health administrators, and indigenous peoples first met at the first International Congress on Circumpolar Health in 1967 in Fairbanks, Alaska.  Then, there were only 39 presentations.

The last circumpolar health conference took place three years ago in Novosibirsk, Russia. The next meeting takes place in 2011 in Fairbanks, Alaska.