Indigenous populations and chronic disease in Canada

Canada's Indigenous populations, whether living in rural communities or in urban centers are at significantly higher risk of developing chronic disease than non-Indigenous Canadians. The gap in the health status of Canada's Indigenous people is a matter of ongoing concern for HealthPartners and our 16 trusted health charities, and we have worked to recognize and understand the unique social determinants for Indigenous peoples associated with their cultures, histories and colonization, and the current social, economic, political context.

 The following are just a handful of examples of work being done by HealthPartners’ charities:

Arthritis Society


  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is more common in First Nations and Métis Peoples than in non-Indigenous populations. However, little is known about the preferences of Indigenous patients regarding RA management. Researchers found that First Nations or Métis patients with RA at rheumatology clinics in Southern Alberta accept a holistic approach to managing the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of living with RA. Their preferences for medication were also influenced by clinical, familial and societal factors: First Nations and Métis patient preferences for rheumatoid arthritis management

Alzheimer Society of Canada


  • The Alzheimer Society of Canada helps fund research at a population level to determine the impact of dementia on Indigenous populations. The prevalence rate may be as much as 34% higher than in non-Indigenous populations, with an average earlier onset of 10 years. The society also funds research aimed at improving knowledge, diagnosis, treatment and management of Alzheimer’s and dementia in Indigenous populations of Canada. As well, it provides services and support to people with dementia and their caregivers.


Canadian Cancer Society (CCS)


  • The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) partners with the Tobacco-Wise Cessation Services project to reduce tobacco use among First Nations, Inuit, Métis, and urban Indigenous populations living in Ontario and Saskatchewan through a grant from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. The CCS has also worked with Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada for the past five years on the “My Journey” series, created to increase Inuit knowledge about cancer and provide resources to patients, families, caregivers and health professional. The long-term goal is to build cancer literacy, increase screening rates, encourage lifestyle changes to reduce cancer incidence and develop platforms for support at each stage of the cancer journey.


Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF)


  • The Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) 2019 LIVERight Gala Honouree: Grand Chief Stewart Philip
  • The Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) has awarded nearly $500,000 in research grants to Canadian researchers, for example, to:
  • Improve understanding of the genetic factors in First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast who have a higher than average rate of a liver disease called Primary Biliary Cholangitis as this liver disease represents more than 25% of the First Nations peoples’ liver transplant referrals in BC.
  • Improve treatments for a liver disease called North American Indian Childhood Cirrhosis (one child out of 10 in this population carries the gene mutation responsible for this disease) in hopes of eliminating the need for liver transplantation.
  • CLF was a founding partner of the Canadian Network on Hepatitis C (CanHepC) research network, dating back to 2002. One of the key populations affected by hepatitis C is Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and it is estimated that hepatitis C rates are five times higher among Indigenous Peoples than Canada’s general population.
  • In 2019, CLF established a new research partnership with the Saskatchewan Infectious Disease Care Network (SIDCN) to support a community-based and -led model of care to improve access to chronic liver disease treatment and improve continuity of care in 10 First Nations communities.
  • The CLF also hosts and attends several information sessions and presentations for Indigenous communities throughout the country on a regular basis.


Crohn’s and Colitis Canada


  • Crohn’s and Colitis Canada funds research projects that impact people in underserved communities, including Indigenous populations. As an example, the IBD telemedicine program out of Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, itself a component of the Promoting Access and Care through Centres of Excellence (PACE) program, Canada’s first national network of IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease ) Centres of Excellence, looks to extend specialized Crohn’s and colitis care to geographic regions across Canada where people with IBD have difficulty accessing specialized care.


Diabetes Canada


  • Diabetes Canada: Rainier Ward’s story “I hope to spread the message of health and recovery to my people.”
  • For Indigenous Peoples in Canada, the risk of developing diabetes is as high as 80%. Diabetes Canada has a host of programs to help address this serious health issue, including opportunities for people to come together for networking, information and support, such as the annual Indigenous Gathering on Diabetes in Prince Albert, Sask., now in its 16th year, the ‘Breaking the Cycle of Diabetes’ program that equipped a network of Diabetes Ambassadors in First Nation communities with culturally appropriate tools and resources to become peer leaders and advocates. In its first year, 53 ambassadors reached 9577 Indigenous peoples from 25 First Nation communities in Saskatchewan.
  • A partnership with First Nations Inuit Health and the seven Tribal Councils in Manitoba led to the development and distribution of a resource guide for individuals living with type 2 diabetes in rural and remote reserve communities, while “Let’s Talk Diabetes” is a school series designed to support and educate youth at risk of developing diabetes. Diabetes Canada has partnered with Frontier School Division -- the largest geographical division in Northern Manitoba with the highest Indigenous population.
  • The Diabetes 360° Strategy, developed in 2018, includes specific recommendations to improve prevention, screening, treatment and patient outcomes for diabetes. A Working Group on the Inclusion of Indigenous Peoples came together to lead sections of the strategy that relate to Indigenous communities. They provided feedback on the strategy to ensure it respects the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s health-related Calls to Action and does no harm to Indigenous Canadians. As a group, they advised that, although a pan-Canadian strategy cannot address the specific needs of Indigenous groups, it could serve as a starting point from which to build an Indigenous owned, led, and implemented diabetes strategy that speaks to the unique needs of Indigenous peoples in Canada.


Heart & Stroke


  • Coming soon: HealthPartners presents: Indigenous heart health. A short video featuring Tammy White Quills-Knife, National Indigenous Health Manager at the Heart and Stroke Foundation and researcher Dr. Bernice Downie, Indigenous Women’s Heart and Brain Chair, McMaster University.


  • Heart & Stroke’s HeartSmart Kids Program has been educating students in grades K to 6 for 23 years in BC and has now expanded into Indigenous communities across the country.
  • Indigenous women have a higher cardiovascular disease mortality rate than non-Indigenous women. Through the federally funded Chairs in Indigenous Women’s Heart and Brain Health, Heart & Stroke is targeting research on women’s heart and brain health and promoting collaboration between research institutions across the country.


Kidney Foundation of Canada


  • People of Indigenous ancestry are at higher risk than the average population for kidney disease. The Kidney Foundation of Canada has funded research related to Indigenous populations, including on integrated and culturally relevant health care as well as on organ donation. Its Manitoba Branch developed an Indigenous curriculum for primary and secondary prevention of kidney disease, including screening.


Muscular Dystrophy Canada (MDC)


  • Muscular Dystrophy Canada (MDC) provides multiple types of support to Indigenous peoples, such as:
  • Facilitating connections between Indigenous populations, who are often in rural locations, and specialized health care resources, for example helping offset travel expenses to visit neuromuscular disease specialists in Northern Ontario
  • Partnering with various reserves across Canada to assist people in navigating resources and vendors to enhance access to assistive devices
  • Providing information sessions as well as coping/adjustment and emotional support through service specialists