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Canada Says “Sorry”



On Tuesday, Prime Minister Harper, on behalf of all Canadians, said “We are sorry” to the Aborginal peoples of Canada for putting generations of them through residential schools aimed at removing them from the influence of the wigwam.

These residential schools began in 1920 and attendance for all aboriginal children ages 7-15 years was made compulsory. Children were forcibly taken from their families by priests, Indian agents and police officers. The last federally run residential school was in Saskatchewan and closed its doors in 1996.

In his address, Harper said:

The Government of Canada built an educational system in which young children were often forcibly removed from their home, often taken far from their communities. Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities.

This disastrous and cruel policy resulted in much pain and despair in the First Nations’, Inuit and Metis people that lasts to this day (known as the “generational effect”). Sexual, physical and mental abuse was widespread; students were broken in heart and spirit; culture and identities were destroyed.

Much (if not all) of what ails the Aboriginal peoples of Canada can be traced back to this policy – including possibly issues that affect Aboriginal health to this day.

It is no secret that obesity and its consequences (e.g. diabetes) are rampant amongst the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. While poverty, breakdown of traditional lifestyle and culture and even genetic factors (thrifty genotype) have all been implicated in this, I wonder how much the misery caused by the residential school program had to contribute.

Early traumatic life experiences including sexual, mental and physical abuse as well as neglect and grief have all been implicated in binge eating disorder (BED) – in its purest form – the uncontrollable urge to devour large quantities of highly palatable high-caloric foods in response to emotional hunger. This behaviour has been interpreted as an emotional coping strategy, “filling the inner void”, building a physical protective barrier, etc., the ultimate result being excessive weight gain with all its consequences (the typical binger does not compensate by purging or excessive exercise).

In “treatment-seeking” patients with obesity, the prevalence of BED is estimated at 20-40%. Although I was unable to find a study that has applied the DSM-IV criteria for BED to an Aboriginal population – my guess is: the rates are probably high!

Given its distinct psychopathology, BED is highly responsive to psychotherapeutic approaches. In contrast, educational initiatives based on simply providing information on healthy lifestyles are useless.

Obesity is never an issue of “choice”. I have yet to meet anyone who “chooses” to be obese. This is most certainly also true for Canada’s Aboriginal population.

I look forward to perhaps one day reading a thesis on “The Role of Residential Schools in the Aboriginal Obesity Epidemic”.

I’d be surprised if the author failed to find a clear link.

AMS
Edmonton, Alberta

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