Brown Bag Speaker Series on Aboriginal Health
November 18, 2010
Centre for Aboriginal Health Research, UVIC
Onowa McIvor, MA
Doctoral student, Department of Language and Literacy Education, UBC
Senior Lecturer, Indigenous Education,
Faculty of Education, University of Victoria
Sneak peek
 Little research on the link between language and
culture and health outcomes or predictors, especially
 The research that does exist is very convincing
 Huge potential for L&C to have greater effect on health
outcomes, health predictors
 Exploration of intersection between Indigenous
language revitalization and health research – further
collaboration is needed
Overview of Indigenous languages
in Canada
 At the time of contact there were an estimated 450
Aboriginal languages and dialects in Canada
belonging to 11 language families (Office of the
Commissioner of Official languages, 1992).
 There are now approximately 60 Indigenous languages
still spoken in Canada belonging to 11 different
language families (Statistics Canada, 2008).
 Of these, only 3 of the 50-70 Indigenous languages in
Canada are predicted by Statistics Canada to survive
(Nihiyaw, Anishnaabe & Inuktituk)
 “All of them are endangered. There are no exceptions.”
Dr. Lorna Williams, (University Affairs, Nov. 2010)
 Determiners – number of speakers,
 New research states number of speakers alone is a poor
measurement rather what is most important is rate of
intergenerational transmission and especially how
many children are learning the language (Barrena et
al., 2007; Norris, 2003).
 The 2001 Census reports that only 15% of Aboriginal
children in Canada are learning their language
 Only about 2% of Indigenous language speakers in BC
are under the age of 25 (FPHLCC, 2010)
“A language dies when its last speakers do.” FPHLCC,
State of languages in BC
 “British Columbia is home
to 60% of the indigenous
languages in Canada”
 In roughly 100 years we
have gone from 100% of
pop. speaking to about 5%
 Most fluent speakers are
over 65
 About 8% of First Nations
pop. is semi-fluent and
another 11% are learning
Strategies for language
• Collaboration
• Planning
• Curriculum/resource
• Research
• Language classes
• Immersion initiatives
• Teacher training
• Advocacy/political action
• Personal/family action
• Archiving/documentation
• Lexicon development
Link between language and culture
 Inextricably linked
 “It is through language that a culture is transmitted”
(FPHLCC, 2010)
Defining protective factors
Concept that captures the notion of resources that
build resilience, buffer against risk and may even
have preventative effects for, in this case, health
outcomes for Indigenous people.
Indigenous culture as a protective
factor – 5 themes
1) Connection between land and health
 2 key studies (Wilson, 2003 & Wolsko et al, 2006)
 Turning to the land for healing, seeing the land as alive
“It doesn’t matter where you go. If I have problems I talk a
walk in the bush. I talk to the trees and they listen. They
take my problems away.” (Participant - Wilson)
“You know, just walking out in the Tundra and looking at
the surroundings. That’s a form of stress release. To
become part of nature is a form of stress release.”
(Participant – Wolsko et al.)
Culture as protective factor
2)Traditional medicine as a protective factor
 “Harvesting medicine is medicine” (Hill, 2008)
 Example – evergreen tree extracts & blueberry plant
roots used to control Type II diabetes (Floren, 2004)
 Efficacy believed to be linked to spirituality – “believers”
most likely healed by traditional medicine (Hill, 2008)
3) Spirituality as a protective factor
 Several studies were located linking spiritual practices to
reduced harm and greater health – studies such as
Garroutte et al. (2003) & Kendall’s report (2002)
Culture as protective factor
4) Traditional foods
 “culturally and bio-regionally specific” (Milburn, 2004)
plant and animals foods harvested from local
 Food as medicine
 Harvesting is spiritual and links to land
5) Traditional activities – such as:
 hunting, fishing, storytelling, arts, crafts, dancing, singing
 Several researchers found participation in traditional
activities to an effective protective factor against
conditions such as depression and substance abuse
Indigenous language use as
protective factor
 Most research linking Indigenous language use and
health outcomes reports a negative correlation in that
Indigenous-only home language use lowers rates of
access to health care (Northern and international)
 2 studies located which included some kind of
measure of Indigenous language use and its effect on
health outcomes.
 Bjerregaard & Curtis, 2002 – interesting due to the
remote location of the study, such a high fluency rate
the protective influence could not be measured
 The other - Chandler, Lalonde & Hallett (2007)
Indigenous language use as
protective factor
 Hallett, Chandler & Lalonde, 2007 – most relevant
article located linking language use to health
outcomes (in this case suicide prevention)
 Hallett acknowledges some of the concern that the
former work (C&L, 1998) was not actually measuring
cultural continuity
 Language a more direct indicator of cultural continuity
 Analyzed language separately from other 6 factors
Language as protective factor (cont’d)
 Rates of suicide in First Nations with high level of
language knowledge dropped to zero in all but one
 The results indicate that the use of Indigenous
languages is a “strong predictor of health and
wellbeing in Canada’s Aboriginal communities.”
Hallett et al. (2007)
Future research
 Most studies to date focus on rural communities which
leaves urban communities and the particular issues
associated ignored
 Further research needed on effects of environmental
contaminants in the food chain on human health
 Research needed on link between the decimation of
lands and the psychological and physiological effects
on those Indigenous to those lands (particularly urban
communities, communities effected by oil and gas
development, etc.)
 Explore feasibility of (gradual) return to subsistence
lifestyle/food sourcing for urban and rural pop.
 Eg. Camas harvest, salmon run
 Serious and swift attention to language revival in
Canada is needed
 Cultural protection strategies needed
 More research needed linking Indigenous language
and culture and health outcomes
 The research that exists is powerful and convincing
 Great potential for overlap between these two fields
 Further collaboration is needed to fully explore the
potential that will have many positive outcomes
As Canadians, we all need to hold Indigenous languages
and cultures high and support their protection and
revival – it is our shared heritage.
First Peoples Heritage, Language and Culture Council. (2010).
Report on the status of BC First Nations languages.
Retrieved from
McIvor, O. & Napoleon, A. (2009). Language and culture as
protective factors for at-risk communities. Journal of
Aboriginal Health, 5(1), pp. 6-25. Retrieved from
McIvor, O. (2009). Strategies for Indigenous language
revitalization and maintenance. Encyclopedia of Language
and Literacy Development (pp. 1-12). Retrieved from

Language and Culture as Protective Factors, Resilience in