When Apple is a Bad Word

This weekend I experienced my first trip to the Yukon, where I attended the 2008 Conference of the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT) in Whitehorse.

CAOT is a partner of the Canadian Obesity Network and I believe that this was the first time that a CAOT conference featured a professional issue forum on Obesity and Healthy Occupation. Speakers in this session, chaired by Mary Forhan (McMaster), included Kim Raine (U Alberta), Gaye Hanson (Hanson & Associates) and myself.

While Kim talked about how obesity has to be seen in the context of societal changes and pressures and I presented the medical perspective on obesity as a chronic disease, Mary talked about the role and opportunities for occupational therapists in obesity prevention, treatment and in allowing patients with obesity to live complete and dignified lives (no matter how good our prevention or treatments, there will always be obese individuals in our society). Gaye, a former Midwife and ex-Deputy Minister of Health and Social Services in the Yukon, herself of Cree Ancestry, presented a most enlightening view of the challenges of addressing obesity in Aboriginal populations.

But for me the most moving insights came from the closing remarks by Madeleine Dion Stout (picture), who was also the keynote speaker at the conference. Born and raised on the Kehewin First Nation in Alberta and nursing graduate from the Edmonton General Hospital, Madeleine worked for many years in the Medical Services Branch of Health Canada and has been a member of dozens of First Nations health committees and task forces aimed at improving the health of First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

The one sentence that I found particularly enlightening was (in the context of obesity – “apple and pears”) “don’t ever refer to an Indian as an apple!”. For an Indian, an apple implies being “red” on the outside but “white” on the inside – not a very polite thing to say! All goes to show how cultural context can fully change the meaning of even the most seemingly innocuous words.

Most interestingly, Madeleine, herself a “victim” of residential schools made the same connection between the pain, suffering, broken spirit and shame inflicted by residential schools and the increased risk for obesity that I had made in my blog posting a day earlier. Imagine my surprise, as Madeleine of course was unaware of my take on the “apology”.

Overall a most insightful weekend – much to think about.

Thank you CAOT for inviting me to Whitehorse.

Edmonton, Alberta