07/04/2016 06:44 EDT | Updated 07/04/2016 06:59 EDT

On July 9th, Celebrate Health The Nunavummiut Way

Though Canada Day has come and gone, there's still a good reason to keep the good feelings alive. On July 9th, Nunavut will be celebrating its 23rd birthday and the rest of our country is invited to join in the festivities. Not only will it mark a special day for our youngest territory, but it will also laud the people who have lived the longest in this great land.

Wayne R Bilenduke via Getty Images
Northwest Territories

Though Canada Day has come and gone, there's still a good reason to keep the good feelings alive. On July 9th, Nunavut will be celebrating its 23rd birthday and the rest of our country is invited to join in the festivities. Not only will it mark a special day for our youngest territory, but it will also laud the people who have lived the longest in this great land.

The area was first populated at least 4,000 years ago when Earth was a very different place. Over the years, the people of this land thrived in ways significantly different from those in Asia and Europe. Their traditions continued on and today many continue to be practiced albeit at times with a modern twist.

As one might expect, health was viewed much differently back then and many of those philosophies are still in practice today. Not surprisingly, they differ in many ways from modern medicine and wellness. The focus is not on the 37 trillion cells - and tens of trillions of microbes - comprising the human body, but the community as an entity in and of itself.

This gap has, unfortunately, led to a problem in how Nunavut is seen in the eyes of those living elsewhere. Instead of examining the community, people tend to think of singular entities causing troubles, such as infectious and chronic diseases. This has led to an unwarranted stigmatization of the entire area as unhealthy.

To get a truer sense of health from a Nunavut perspective, I reached out to Dr. Gwen Healey, the Executive and Scientific Director of the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre in Iqaluit. As the Inuktitut name implies, her centre is continually "looking for knowledge" in the hopes of improving the lives of Nunavummiut. According to her, this effect is doing more harm than good.

"The vast majority of southerners only see one side of the story, because that is usually all that gets the media's attention. This leads to stigma and it is very damaging. For example, I left my community to go to university after high school and I came across so many misunderstandings and painful prejudices - viewpoints carried by Canadians in the south. I stopped telling people where I was from because I started to feel ashamed about it."

But instead of fighting the stigma, over her career, which earned her a doctorate and many publications in the academic world, Gwen developed an appreciation for the territory and its people. "I was able to get some perspective on the issue and rediscover a way to celebrate who I am, who we are as a community, and try to change the dialogue about the North."

As for those statistics, Healey recognizes they exist. "There is no doubt that we face a number of challenges to obtaining and maintaining good health." But she also points out there is more to the story than the focus on microbes and/or immunity. "Many challenges are rooted in a northern historical and colonial context that very few Canadians know or understand." Her answer to this problem is relatively simple in practice and could possibly change the way we look at the North and ourselves.

"Our way of living is special and unique. We care for each other. We live in diverse and exciting geographies right across Northern Canada. We have close-knit communities with long, ancestral ties to the lands we live on. We support each other with food, harvesting, childrearing, skill-building, storytelling, music, and crafting. People rarely hear about is the beauty and strength of our communities, the love, generosity, kindness, welcoming and inclusive spirit, innovative and creative solution-seeking approaches to life, and the ways in which our relationships to the arts, the land, the people, and the animals permeate every facet of our lives and well-being. We are heart-centred and that is a beautiful thing."

For a laboratory researcher, public health official, or physician, this perspective may appear to be outside the realms we know so well. Healey admits that but for those people, she has one simple question: 'What if research methods were designed from an Inuit theoretical perspective instead of a Eurocentric/Western one?"

For nearly 10 years, Healey has worked to answer that question and in the process has developed a health model that has received an overwhelmingly positive response in academia, but perhaps more importantly, in communities across the north. From her experience, Healey has found a way to celebrate and improve health using a different kind of laboratory.

"At Qaujigiartiit, Nunavummiut have designed and tested evidence-based programs based on Inuit knowledge; developed and published innovative research approaches based on Inuit values; created an Inuktitut-language healthy foods and activities app; explored how health architecture can embrace Inuit relationships to the land and wellness perspectives; shared ideas about health and wellness in national and international forums; and written articles and book chapters which are shared all over this country and in undergraduate university courses."

But Healey is not alone. Her model is just one of many using a variety of specialties - not just medicine - to maintain a healthy community. "There are multiple other groups in Nunavut who are similarly accomplishing great things in law, music, performing arts, computer science, climate science, design, film, and more. Our perspective is holistic - we recognize that art, science, music, and our natural and built environments are not isolated, and that wellness occurs at the intersection of these aspects of our lives."

In essence, Healey believes and has shown that the philosophy of integration is incredibly important and can be adopted by everyone. "We all have some positive contribution to make to the improvement of health and wellness in our communities, and we have to harness our strengths and our capabilities to do that."

As for examples of success, Healey is especially proud of a parenting program in which the traditional knowledge of the Inuit is shared in a way that has helped all communities. "A great deal of knowledge about Inuit childrearing philosophy was lost to the younger generation so at the request of our communities, we set out to develop a parenting program, which is based on Inuit childrearing and family perspectives." But rather than going the usual route involving literature searches and collaborations with researchers from afar, this program took a very diferent approach. "Much of the content came from a pre-existing elders advisory committee. Many individuals in different fields contributed artwork, songs, stories, activities, recipes, and learning models to the different parts of the program."

After the program was developed, they took the modern approach of performing a pilot to ensure it worked - a clinical trial on a social scale. When the results came back, it was a shining success. It's now being offered in numerous communities in Nunavut and may be used in other areas around the world.

But Healey isn't about to rest on her laurels. She's working on numerous other projects including one involving a globally sensitive issue, sexual health. "We're developing a new series of workshops which combine sexual health, relationships and Inuit performing arts with our friends and partners." The release of this project is in the fall so until then, Healey advises us to stay tuned.

With July 9th approaching, the entire community of Nunavut will be getting ready for a joyous day. Yet Healey isn't only excited for the 23rd birthday, but also for the ones to come. "When I think about the future, I think about my children and their friends, and their future children. I think about what we are leaving for future generations. I think we are at a really interesting turning point in Canada, where hopefully Canadians will stop seeing the North as 'the last Frontier' to be conquered, but a beautiful and resilient place that has been occupied for 4000 years by innovative, artful, welcoming, loving peoples."

As for turning philosophy and perspective into practice, Healey knows Canada can learn a great deal from Nunavut and develop a healthier modern society using traditional philosophies, perspectives, and practices. "Let me put it this way. At community Christmas concerts or any event involving children, it's very common to hear people in the audience shouting, "I love you!", "Nalligivagit!", "Aakuluk!", "Ajunngi!" (a word that means 'you can do it', and also the pride that one feels when observing someone's accomplishment).

How often do you hear that in other places? "It may seem trivial but enriching the person within a community reinforces better health. Take a look at a person not as a collection of tens of trillions of cells but as an integral member of a community who will help retain and build on the beautiful things. If we keep that in mind - and teach them to our children and grandchildren -- the future can't be anything but bright."

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