British Columbia

Report on Indigenous women and girls' health highlights strengths, examines barriers

Reporting on First Nations health often looks solely at the deficits within those communities, but a new report from the First Nations Health Authority and provincial health office also highlights resiliency among Indigenous women and girls, to create a more accurate picture of what's going on.

Report combines Western data with Indigenous teachings to create better understanding of First Nations health

A new report looks at First Nations women and girls' health from birth to their elder years, including all aspects of wellness, from physical activity to community gatherings. (Sacred and Strong: Upholding our Matriarchal Roles Report)

A new report from the First Nations Health Authority and the provincial health officer takes a deep dive into the systemic racism Indigenous women and girls continue to face when accessing government services, in particular, health care.

What's unique about the report, however, is that it also highlights the resiliency and knowledge they possess — and always have.

Report author Dr. Danièle Behn Smith, deputy provincial health officer for Indigenous health, said it was important the report came from a place of strength, because for years, health reporting on Indigenous people has focused solely on the deficits within those communities, failing to paint a well-rounded picture.

"We're really shifting our health reporting to be strength-based, to recognize that we are really coming with great ancestral knowledge systems and ability to take care of ourselves since time immemorial," she told Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

"That's, of course, been disrupted through colonization."

The report examines health and wellness for women from birth to their elder years, and uses three key areas to identify what's working, and what's not, in terms of mental, spiritual and physical health. It looks at everything from education to the justice system, and from sexuality to nutrition. 

"The whole report has these threads and these narratives of teachings and stories and the lived experiences of these incredible matriarchs and it's just such a transformative approach, I think," Behn Smith said.

A new report from the First Nations Health Authority and office of the provincial health combines Indigenous knowledge and experiences with data. (Sacred and Strong: Upholding our Matriarchal Roles Report)

With each set of data is a story from an Indigenous woman or girl, like this one from Maxwaks-Stephanie Bernard of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nations: "I had a rough childhood as a teenager — and after I finished my first year of college, I was making some poor decisions and had my first son when I was 20 years old. That changed my life. I decided at that point that I needed to shift my path and change the direction of where I was going. It was a combination of wanting to break the cycle of how I was raised and that nurturing, protecting piece of wanting to raise my children in a safe and caring environment."

Bernard told CBC she has experienced racism from health-care providers both personally and professionally as the manager of a wellness program.

"I do believe that there's change coming and it is with resources like this and with us telling our stories and having a voice that we could make change," she said.

Behn Smith said including uplifting stories isn't meant to downplay the vulnerability Indigenous people face within the health-care system, and in all institutions, as a result of the legacy of colonization. 

"There are many of us who still experience a lot of vulnerability as a result of ongoing legacies from colonization, social exclusion across a number of mainstream settler systems that mean that we do still experience a number of inequities in really serious health outcomes," she said.

The report is intended to serve as a benchmark to track progress in addressing long-standing inequities, many of which have been pointed out in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report from 2019, the Truth and Reconciliation Commision findings from 2015 and the Addressing Racism review from 2020, all of which offered recommendations and actions for individuals and government.

Bernard hopes it will serve as a tool for both health-care providers and individuals to decolonize views and practices.

"I hope that it has the ability to really empower our beautiful Indigenous girls and our women that are hurting and that it gives a voice."

Read the full report: 

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Listen to Dr. Danièle Behn Smith's interview on CBC's The Early Edition here: 


With files from The Early Edition and All Points West