Dr. Sylvia Abonyi
Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Health
Defining culture is like catching smoke: you can see it, you can smell it, but you can’t quite wrap your fingers around it.
Culture is important. Health Canada recognizes a strong and vibrant culture means healthier people and communities. The reverse is also true, as Indigenous peoples know all too well. Many years of cultural oppression have left a legacy of lower life expectancies and higher incidence of diseases like diabetes and obesity.
But what is culture? And how does culture relate to the health of a population? Some have attempted to get a handle on the issue among Indigenous Canadians by trying, for example, to correlate health outcomes with how much people engage in traditional activities like fiddling or attending powwows.
“We try to tap into the tangible things that we see as culture, without really understanding what they represent, and so we recognize that the measures we have used so far need refinement,” says Dr. Sylvia Abonyi. “We can think broadly of culture as shared values and belief systems. We know they differ for different groups of people – so under what conditions can groups of people express their values and beliefs in their everyday lives? Under what conditions are their expressions constrained, and does that lead to bad health?”
Abonyi stresses that her research is – indeed must be – community driven. As an anthropologist and health researcher, she is acutely aware of the skepticism of Indigenous people who have seen strangers come into their communities, ask their questions and vanish, with no apparent benefit to people or community.
Instead, she begins by working with people on the questions they most want answered. One example is a project looking at HIV/AIDS awareness. The disease is not yet a problem in northern Saskatchewan communities, but many factors exist that could lead to its emergence.
To design prevention, education, and support initiatives, community leaders needed to know their peoples’ beliefs, experiences and understanding of the disease. This meant coupling Abonyi’s research expertise with cultural knowledge from the people.
“One of the interesting things that came out is that while HIV/AIDS is an emerging concern, hepatitis C is a bigger issue right now. At the same time, people seemed to know less about it. We ended up asking questions about both diseases – that was something the communities asked us to do as the project was moving along.”
Abonyi’s research facility is located in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan’s “gateway to the North,” the city where many northerners come to do business or further their education. Being in this hub city helps make the work open, visible and accessible to the people that have a stake in it, and allows easier hiring of northerners to participate in analysis and getting the word out to the people.
Of course, the whole health picture is more complex. For example, in communities where incomes are low and food prices are high, how can traditional foods fill some of the gaps? Should floor plans for new houses be more flexible to allow extended families that live together to function more easily? How can local schools incorporate cultural programming to help preserve pride and self-esteem? Which health determinants are a matter of money – socioeconomic status – and which are related to culture, and in what ways?