Indigenous communities burdened with high rates of chronic diseases need our collaboration

Published On: November 2020Categories: 2020 Conference Editorials, Editorials


Isadore Day (Wiindawtegowinini)



Isadore Day

Addressing disparities in Indigenous health and wellness is a monumental endeavour for our country that requires collaboration, innovation and commitment between communities, as well as the public and private sectors. Disparities rooted in factors such as poverty, crowded and inadequate housing, food insecurity, unsanitary water and inequitable health care access continue to accelerate chronic illnesses among Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. 

For example, prior to 1940 diabetes was rare among Indigenous people in North America but has now reached epidemic levels in some communities. Today, 80 percent* of Indigenous Canadians will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. Respiratory diseases such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) are also on the rise in Indigenous communities.  It is difficult to quantify, as data is sparse. We do know one of the leading causes of COPD is smoking, and smoking rates in Indigenous communities are, on average, twice as high as those of non-Indigenous Canadians. Our people also have a higher frequency of heart disease, ongoing tuberculosis transmission and, in many cases, limited access to critical health care resources.

To address the lack of formal Indigenous health policy in Canada, Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) Ltd. and Bimaadzwin engaged with Indigenous health policy leaders to develop an Indigenous Health Policy Framework (IHPF). The framework establishes terms of reference for collaborating with Indigenous Peoples to explore new approaches to health and wellness. Key focus areas include addressing the social determinants of health (to understand the underlying causes of chronic diseases) and leveraging traditional approaches to health and healing.

Using the IHPF as our guide, Boehringer Ingelheim Canada and Bimaadzwin established an innovative health project fund to provide qualified Indigenous communities with access to resources for community-driven health and wellness pilot projects that go “beyond the pill” in addressing type 2 diabetes and/or COPD. 

These community-driven projects will explore new approaches to providing care – or proactive prevention and education programs – and work towards decreasing the incidence of diabetes and/or COPD. Further investments in other chronic diseases are planned following the successful launch of four initial pilot projects. 

The approach to our Indigenous health pilot projects is based on the principles of nationhood with individual communities taking the lead in determining how their communities will engage with partners to address health care disparities. Our vision is empowerment – building relationships between Indigenous communities, the private sector and other interested partners through involvement in health pilot projects with equal participation at all steps. 

By collaborating with Indigenous communities, the private sector can play an active role in advancing health and wellness for one of Canada’s most vulnerable populations. Together, we can explore what’s possible and empower communities to work towards improved health outcomes. Now is the time to act.

* Canadian Medical Association Journal, April 2019