Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cafe Scientifique

A few weeks ago, we attended a Thursday forum regarding science outreach to aboriginal communities in the far north. This month, there was a cafe scientifique along the same topic.

Last week some of us attended a cafe scientifique hosted by the Canadian Diabetes association. It was on "Confronting the challenges of Aboriginal diabetes" and took place at the Librarie du Nouveau Ontario.

Cafe scientifiques are places where the public can come, have a cup of coffee and explore topics in science and technology. The cafes take place in cafes, bars, restaurants, or any informal setting. There are usually 2-3 'experts' in the area to provide information and discuss the topic, but the direction of the discussions are entirely citizen driven. Cafe scientifiques are very popular in europe and especially in UK where they began.

Our moderator for the evening was Dr. Darrell Manitowabi, Native Studies professor at Laurentian University. His PhD research was conducted on the holistic effects (employment, community and infastructure impacts) of Casino Rama on the Rama Mnjikaning First Nation near Orillia.

The two speakers were Dr. Marion Maar, Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill, Indigenous Studies professor at McMaster University. Dr. Maar's research is in aboriginal community health and research ethics in aboriginal communities. Dr. Martin-Hill's long list of research interests include indigenous knowledge & environmental conservation, Indigenous women, spirituality, colonialism’s impact on Indigenous people & medicine, and the contemporary practice of Indigenous traditionalism.

These highly qualified speakers started the discussion with a 10 minute "talk" to introduce the topic. Diabetes is a major issue for aboriginal communities. The occurrence of diabetes is three times higher in aboriginal communities than the national average. Children are being increasingly diagnosed with old-age onset diabetes (Type II diabetes). If left untreated, diabetes leads to heart, kidney, and eye problems. Diabetes-related nerve damage in the limbs can lead to gangrene and amputation.

Diet and exercise can help individuals manage diabetes. However, the psycho-social impacts of forced assimilation through residential schools, as well as poverty, have resulted in poor diets in aboriginals. Often food needs to be flown into far north communities and as I learned yesterday sometimes there is a pecking order. Youth are left to eat what hasn't already been picked by the adults, medical professionals and other higher ups in the community. What they are left with is junk food, which exacerbates the problem of diabetes.

Some aboriginal mothers admitted possibly over-feeding their children, so that they do not experience starvation as the parents once did.

Dr. Martin-Hill suggested that the solution lied in returning to traditional foods which met with nods of agreement around the room. It is not an easy task however as one man lamented about government imposed restrictions that made it challenging for him to hunt for moose, a traditional aboriginal prey. In addition it would be unsafe to eat large amounts of local fish due to toxic mercury build up in fish.

Aboriginal women told the stories of family members who had suffered or died from diabetes. The women explained that since diabetes is so common in their communities, people simply expect to get diabetes, at some point during their lives. This attitude may also come from the mistaken western idea that aboriginals are genetically prone to get diabetes. A few individuals are currently managing the disease well, through support groups and by integrating aboriginal and western medicines.

The health care professionals in attendance seemed grateful for the open dialogue. They thought that doctors and nurses who work with aboriginals required more training in order to improve their practice. The open dialogue that started that night will hopefully continue between the aboriginal communities and the health care professionals.

Café scientifiques are all about engagement. The objective behind them is collaboration; such that both scientific and public views are heard. Hopefully we will have more cafe scientifiques in Sudbury in the future.

- Justin

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