Aboriginal people in Toronto may face premature death: study

The average age of death for Torontonians is 75 but according to a new study, that number is much lower for some of the city's aboriginal population.
Researchers at Anishnawbe Health Toronto find that the city's aboriginal population dies much younger than other city residents 2:01

Chrissy Smith loves being a part of the aboriginal community in Toronto but she admits, it can be a hard place to live. 

Originally from the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, Chrissy Smith is one of approximately 70,000 aboriginal people who call Toronto home. She has lived here two decades and for many of those years, she struggled with mental health issues, anxiety, and depression.

Though she’s just 40 years old, Smith has already lived three years longer than a significant number of aboriginal people in Toronto, according to a new report.

Researchers at Anishnawbe Health Toronto found the city's aboriginal population who visited indigenous health centres in Toronto between 2008 and 2010 died much younger than other city residents.

According to the study, the average age of death for those residents was just 37 years old. Toronto Public Health says the average age of death for other city residents is 75 years old.

Dr. Chandrakant Shah is one of the authors of the report.

For the past 18 years, he’s been a physician at Anishnawbe Health Toronto.

Dr. Shah and his colleagues went over premature death records at Anishnawbe Health and three other health and social service centres in Toronto. They also interviewed family members of some of the deceased.

In total, 109 medical charts were reviewed and 20 interviews conducted. Although this is a relatively small sample, Dr. Shah said he was shocked at the results.
At 40, Chrissy Smith is already three years past the life expectancy of a significant number of aboriginal people in Toronto, according to a new study by Anishnawbe Health. (Chrissy Smith)

“I was interested in what was behind this man's or woman's life that caused an early death,” said Dr. Shah.

What he found was that in the cases he examined, the cause of death was commonly tied directly to issues arising from homelessness, physical abuse, and/or substance abuse.

A typical medical chart showed factors such as diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression and chronic stress also played a role.

These are things that Chrissy Smith knows all about.

She said most days she can manage. But every so often, she is hit with a major anxiety attack.

“I could have a panic attack downtown and people would be like 'what the heck is wrong with you?'" said Smith.
Toronto Public Health says the average age of death for Torontonians is 75 years old. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Smith has a university degree but her anxiety has made it difficult for her to find work.

“When you're not able to find any work, it makes you feel really crappy.” Smith said.

Another finding in Dr. Shah’s report was that many of the indigenous people who had died prematurely in Toronto had attended a residential school.

Others had been part of what’s called the “Sixties Scoop.” Between the 1960’s and 1980’s, thousands of indigenous children were forced into child welfare system. Many were adopted into white homes where they lost their culture and language.

“I was part of the Sixties Scoop and my adoptive parents were extremely abusive,” says Smith.

Thinking First Nations were prone to obesity, Smith says her adoptive parents withheld food, locked her in the backyard or bedroom and called her degrading names.

Dr. Shah says this sort of trauma can sometimes have a terrible impact on the individual years later — what he calls a 'delayed tsunami effect.'

Mike Layton is a Toronto city councillor and member of the Aboriginal Affairs Committee. Layton said the city needs to address the root causes of these premature deaths.

“We're looking at generations of impact that we have to start to overcome.”

Layton said he hopes the city's recently declared “Year of Truth and Reconciliation” will help raise awareness about aboriginal issues in Toronto.

But for Dr. Shah, words are no longer enough. He said concrete steps need to be taken in order to create new policies and programs that will better the lives of Indigenous people in Toronto.

As for Chrissy Smith, she’s skeptical the Year of Truth and Reconciliation will have much of an impact on her life in Toronto.

She said the support of friends and family is what gives her a sense of belonging, something she's never had before.

It is the one thing she can rely on.


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