• Photograph by Max FineDay

Dreaming Healthy Nations: Aboriginal status as a determinant of health

“I wonder how we can reconcile when the majority of Canadians do not understand the historic or contemporary injustice of dispossession and occupation”       -  Leanne Simpson

In the spirit of building healthier relationships, here's the second feature in a new series of articles for Upstream by Max FineDay, a young nēhiyaw leader who recently finished his second term as president of the University of Saskatchewan Student's Union. In this series, Max explores the concept of the social determinants of health through an Indigenous lens, and the types of upstream interventions that could improve health outcomes for Indigenous peoples. In his own words, "My goal in this project is to explore how that idea relates to Indigenous lives, and how it might help us chart a way to a healthier balance and healthier relationships in Canada." 

The closer we were to the reserve, the bumpier the roads were. The drive was only about two hours, but to a seven year old that seems like forever. When we finally crossed into the rez I would see how long I could vibrate my voice on the bouncy, graded roads. I had been out to visit my aunties, cousins, and nohkom countless times before, but this was the first trip that I stayed awake the whole drive up.

My community is about a half hour from the nearest city, rich in natural beauty, language, ceremony, and laughter. 

It’s hard to pinpoint when I saw poverty for the first time, when I recognized it on or off the reserve. But on this trip I realized that the houses here looked different, many of the cars were old like in the black & white TV shows I’d watch sometimes. I can’t help but wonder when I left seeing only my community, and when I came back recognizing the quiet resiliency of those who aren’t doing as well as our ancestors had hoped.


In the most commonly used list of the 14 Social Determinants of Health, Aboriginal Status stands alone. This should come as a surprise to no one. One in four First Nations children living on reserve live in poverty, twice the national average. Canadians are bombarded regularly with news stories, anecdotes, or first hand experiences that should give them insight into the state of neechidom, the Indigenous world. Statistics in almost every field give context to Indigenous health problems: overcrowded housing on reserves, education completion rates from primary to secondary school sitting far behind Canadian completion rates at 49%, suicide rates four to seven times higher than the national average, and a justice system that has delivered anything but justice. Indigenous women and girls have to look over their shoulder; too many of their sisters have gone missing. Too many of their brothers are in jail.

We’ve seen this passed down from generation to generation, poverty compounded by cultural genocide in the form of Residential Schools

It’s no wonder that the state of Indigenous health is worse than that of other Canadians. It’s only recently been accepted in the literature that inadequate living conditions are a direct factor in how healthy an individual is in life, but it surely comes as no surprise… and in Canada it’s no accident. Studies have shown that living in lower income brackets has been linked to illness and disability, and that the overcrowding that exists in First Nations communities contributes to higher incidences of illness, family tensions, and mental illness. Poverty creates a lack of control for individuals and families that too often leads to hopelessness, anxiety, and depression. In Canada this is a result of deliberate efforts to weaken the culture and worsen the health of Indigenous communities. We’ve seen this passed down from generation to generation, poverty compounded by cultural genocide in the form of Residential Schools.

It isn’t by coincidence that Indigenous peoples live in poverty. It’s been government policy for generations, and though many Canadians ask us to ‘get over it,’ the colonial project that Canada has used to solve the Indian problem has been a resounding failure. The Government of Canada has never prioritized the health of Indigenous communities. Mere survival, based on delivering the bare minimum, was always the result.

My ancestors were proud people. When they signed the treaty, they thought about my wellbeing; they cared about what would come next for us. For them, they left us with what we would need to survive. In Treaty Six that was:

 1. The right to education
 2. Access to health care
 3. Recognition of our sovereignty through tax-exemption
 4. Hunting, fishing, trapping rights
 5. A land base
 6. An annual allowance 
 7. Equipment to engage in farming 

But we know our ancestors' hopes were never realized. Today we’re living in poverty in the midst of plenty.

But we know our ancestors' hopes were never realized. Today we’re living in poverty in the midst of plenty. Treaty Six, like other treaties across the country, is not being adhered to by Canada.


My journey has afforded me the opportunity to talk about these inequities, but I began to feel a type of survivor’s guilt. During our high school years my nēhiyaw and Métis friends, who I had known since elementary school, began to drop out. By grade 11 I was one of two, maybe three, Indigenous students left. Many of my friends began heavily using alcohol, drugs, and ran into trouble with the law. These were the same kids I played games with in elementary school. How did we end up in such different places? To this day, when I see a First Nations kid my age being placed in the back of a police car I wonder, why isn’t that me?


Read the rest of this series Dreaming Healthy Nations, as it's published!


Max FineDay is nēhiyaw (Cree) from Sweetgrass First Nation, he recently finished serving as the President of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union representing 18,000 undergraduate students for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015.

Most of Max’s work focuses on both the student and First Nations movements. He is passionate about youth leadership development, theories for change making, and increasing the accessibility of post-secondary education for traditionally underrepresented communities. Max was the first co-coordinator/developer of “Next Up: First Nations & Metis Youth in Action” which focuses on Indigenous Youth Activist Training & Leadership development. He has just completed a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan and has also studied in the Arctic Circle at the University of Nordland in Bodø, Norway.

When Max isn’t rabble-rousing you can find him learning nêhiyawewin (Cree language), tweeting, and laughing at his own jokes.

All photographs supplied by Max Fineday.

Showing 1 reaction

  • Joseph Mispounas
    commented 2015-06-20 18:49:12 -0600
    You are a very good man Max and I’m proud to be your uncle in-law, keep up the good work.
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