12/08/2011 01:04 EST | Updated 02/07/2012 05:12 EST

Urban First Nations Population Also Struggle With Poverty, Illness And Hunger: Database

OTTAWA - A new database suggests that 60 per cent of aboriginal people living in cities are likely suffering high rates of illness, poverty, hunger and substandard housing.

Researchers say a survey of native people living in Hamilton, Ont., shows that the poverty that has raised alarm bells in remote reserves like Attawapiskat is pervasive in cities as well.

The database shows 80 per cent of the 790 Hamilton aboriginals in the survey earn less than $20,000 a year and 70 per cent live in the poorest neighbourhoods — compared with 25 per cent of the total population.

They move frequently — a sign of transience and housing instability.

And they deal with chronic disease and disability.

They are far more likely to have diabetes, visit emergency rooms, live in crowded conditions or have children with asthma.

"We all continue to be shocked by the living conditions in places like Attawapiskat, but it's important to realize this is also happening right here in our backyards," says Dr. Janet Smylie of the Centre for Research and Inner City Health at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

The survey results suggest that other recent studies of urban First Nations, such as the census, have underestimated the extent of poverty and its related issues, she said in an interview.

"There is a great health inequity here," she said. "First Nations people have higher health problems, yet access to services and care is poorer."

She said the database was set up to fill in gaps about urban aboriginal populations. About 13 per cent of the respondents were homeless and many others were transient, meaning they are likely to be missed by conventional surveys.

Much of the discussion about poverty in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat has focused on the remoteness of the reserve. It's a fly-in community hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town.

But Smylie says poverty, lack of healthy food, overcrowding, lack of access to regular health care and mental illness make for persistent problems in both remote and urban areas.