Bringing two worlds together

- Valerie Shore

Why are some Aboriginal communities coping better than others with such health issues as diabetes, teenage suicides, HIV and heart disease? What factors contribute to this resilience? And how can these factors be applied to improve the health and well-being of Canada’s most vulnerable population?

Helping Aboriginal communities find answers and translate them into policy and practice is the mandate of the university’s newest research centre—the Centre for Aboriginal Health Research.

“There are profound disparities in health and well-being between Aboriginal people and other Canadians,” says epidemiologist Dr. Jeff Reading, co-director of the new centre. “Our task is to narrow the gap and bring two worlds together—Aboriginal communities and the research enterprise—to find strategies that improve health.”

The centre is a natural evolution of the Aboriginal Health Research Group, formed three years ago to unite researchers in several disciplines across campus. “The change in status better positions our faculty and student researchers and community partners to take advantage of funding opportunities in interdisciplinary research and training,” says UVic psychologist Dr. Chris Lalonde, the centre’s other co-director.

Reading recently completed an eight-year term as the inaugural scientific director of the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples’ Health, one of 13 research institutes within the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). His research interests include population health, access to health care, and chronic disease among Aboriginal people.

Lalonde, whose research focuses on identity formation and suicide in Aboriginal youth, is director of the Vancouver Island node of the Network Environments for Aboriginal Health Research BC, which promotes partnerships with Aboriginal communities, networks and academic institutions. He’s also co-principal investigator of the LE,NONET project to improve the success of Aboriginal students at UVic.

The new centre is a natural fit for UVic, which is considered a national leader in Indigenous and cultural studies. Over the years, researchers in fields as diverse as linguistics, anthropology, governance, law, business, education, health, environmental management, psychology, history, literature and art have forged strong relationships with Indigenous communities, seeking to understand and help perpetuate their traditional way of life.

UVic also has a growing Aboriginal student population. In the last 10 years, Aboriginal enrolment has increased by more than 700 per cent, with over 600 Aboriginal students currently attending classes.

“That’s a big group,” says Lalonde. “We want to build on that so that the next generation of Aboriginal health researchers will include as many Aboriginal people as possible.”

The centre’s first step is to set a research agenda through consultations with Aboriginal communities, universities, government, the private sector, charitable organizations and the medical community. “Our role is to get the smartest minds tackling the most important priorities and then turning that into action,” says Reading.

The centre will tap into an extensive national and international network of researchers and communities working on Aboriginal health issues.

In Canada, it is part of a network of nine centres across the country funded by CIHR, each with a regional focus. In BC and the western Arctic, priorities include chronic diseases and mental health, traditional medicine, nutrition and research ethics.

Aboriginal health issues are not unique to BC or Canada, notes Reading. The same disparities exist in developed countries such as Australia and New Zealand, as well as low- and middle-income countries such as Mexico, India, China and those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The centre already has strong ties with an international Aboriginal health network, and Reading foresees partnerships with agencies such as the UN, the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Health Organization. “We have an opportunity, and maybe a responsibility, to reach out and see what kind of struggles Indigenous people are in involved in elsewhere in the world,” he says.

More information: or call 250-853-3115.

In this story

Keywords: Indigenous, diseases

People: Jeff Reading

Related stories