Inequities in oral health: Indigenous populations in Canada
Between the 2015 ‘calls to action’ released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and the now-federally recognized “Orange Shirt Day”, the spotlight is finally beginning to shine on the Indigenous peoples of Canada. The Indigenous populations in Canada include the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Metis. These populations are disadvantaged relative to the rest of the Canadian population—socially, economically, and systemically. Only recently is this truth becoming a mainstream understanding among the general population.
Did you know that this disadvantage manifests itself as poorer health outcomes for Indigenous peoples? This goes for oral health as well—a crucial component of overall health and wellbeing.
The auditor general of Canada’s 2017 fall report showed that specific Indigenous populations of Canada experience nearly twice the amount of dental health problems compared to other Canadians. Moreover, Indigenous children in Canada suffer from higher rates of of early childhood caries (ECC: cavities in children under age 6), and 1 in 4 experience severe ECC. This is not a case of cultural or biological circumstance—instead, it is but another symptom of severe and unresolved systemic issues in the government. Consider this: Canada’s Indigenous peoples had only very low rates of dental decay before the passing of the Indian Act in 1876. Unmistakably, it is the disruption to the lifestyles and livelihoods of Indigenous populations—with only superficial attempts at reconciliation— which is responsible for these stark disparities in oral health.
A lack of access to care is one reason Indigenous populations experience poor dental health. Many Indigenous communities do not have a single dental clinic within a radius of a 1-hour drive from them. Having no transportation—due to many factors, including poverty—makes it all the more difficult for people living in Indigenous communities to get a dental cleaning, for instance. In fact, a 2019 study conducted by York University determined that nearly 30% of the Indigenous population living in Ontario only ever visit the dentist when they require emergency care. Although there are social support programs, the researchers say, Health Canada does not have a clear measurement of their efficacy. Clearly, there is work to be done on the front of providing dental care to Indigenous communities.
Unfortunately, issues of access extend beyond a lack of nearby dental clinics. A perfect storm of poverty, lack of education, and geographical isolation mean it is difficult for families to make healthy food choices. Especially prevalent in remote Indigenous communities (ex. In the territories) where distance and federal neglect lower the quality of life, poor nutrition only fuels the gripping epidemic of gum disease and tooth decay among the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Of course, various cardiovascular diseases are directly linked to poor oral health. Far from resolving existing dental ailments, Indigenous communities are not even afforded the luxury of using preventative behaviours as a means of maintaining oral health.
Devastatingly, the most basic of necessities for good oral health, and overall health—access to clean water—is not guaranteed. Whether it is due to environmental pollution caused by the industrial activities of settlers, or poorly maintained water purification sites, the goal of accessibility for this basic human necessity continues to be abandoned by the federal and provincial governments.
Understanding and raising awareness about an inequity is the first step to taking action. Here at TorontoTooth, we aim to promote understanding of the social injustice that is oral health inequity. Whether it is affecting Indigenous communities across Canada, or the homeless community in Toronto—oral health inequity is a pressing issue.
You can help us with the fight to make oral health accessible. At TorontoTooth, we purchase basic dental hygiene supplies for the most vulnerable populations in Toronto. Did you know that your donation of just $10 will provide four youth with a dental hygiene kit (toothbrush + toothpaste + protective case)? Even a single dollar will make a difference. Please click on the link below to make a difference today.