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Similar, but a world apart

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Published Monday, September 26, 2011

The southernmost territory in the Western hemisphere shares the same health-care problems as the northernmost territory, delegates from the Argentinian province of Tierra del Fuego said during a visit to Iqaluit Sept. 21.

NNSL photo/graphic

Clara Evalik, third from left, was one of three Inuit who travelled to the other side of the world in March to witness health care differences and similarities in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost territory in Argentina. Nunavut's Department of Health welcomed four representatives of Tierra del Fuego Sept. 21. The trip was organized by the Pan-American Health Organization, represented by Sandy Weinger, left. The Argentinian travellers were, Nora Guastini, second from left, Maria Grieco, Andrea Carbone and Virna Almeida. - Casey Lessard/NNSL photo

Their comments echoed sentiments by one of the three Inuit health professionals who visited them in March.

"There were a lot of similarities in how they wanted to deliver proper programs and quality programs," said Clara Evalik, director of Health and Social Services for the Kitikmeot region, who made the trip in March and came to Iqaluit to show the Argentinians how health care in Nunavut works. "They sure have a lot more doctors than we do, whereas our community health centres are based on nurses."

The other Nunavummiut travelling to Argentina were Fiona Buchan-Corey, dean of the Nunavut Arctic College Kitikmeot campus in Cambridge Bay, and Rankin Inlet midwife Catherine Connelly. The Tierra del Fuego delegation was led by the province's Health Minister Maria Grieco.

"What similarities can we find?" Grieco asked. "Geography, weather, health profile of disease, some characteristics of our people. When we landed here, the weather, landscape and buildings were very similar. We thought we were at home."

"Tobacco use is one problem we share and which both areas are trying to address," Grieco added.

"We are both trying to increase physical activity and reduce risk factors such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems. We have a high rate of suicide and mental diseases, a high level of alcohol and drug consumption, but for different reasons," she said, noting most of the 130,000 people living in the archipelago are migrants.

Another major difference is the virtual lack of aboriginal identity.

"We are ashamed to say that when the Europeans came to our country, they were very aggressive to the original people, so you can't see the original people the way you see here."

In fact, Tierra del Fuego only has mixed descendents of the original people, the Selk'nam. Most were wiped out in clashes with European immigrants in the 19th century, and the remaining "mestizo" (a word used throughout Latin America describing people of mixed European and aboriginal heritage) have little connection to their aboriginal past.

"They've lost their language and culture, and their traditional way of living," Evalik said. "The original people had never met people from North America, and they were holding a ceremony in regard to the change of seasons, and it became bigger than that, where they became interested in learning about us as Inuit and the pride we took in being able to live in an integrated community but living aspects of our traditional lifestyle. It was an emotional experience for everyone involved."

The program was funded by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and Health Canada.

"Our representative in Chile has already expressed an interest in doing the same exchange with Canada," said PAHO program officer Sandy Weinger. "Many of our countries have indigenous populations, and this is a way for us to reach out to indigenous people because indigenous health is very important to us."

It's good news for Evalik, who found great value in the exchange.

"I don't feel so alone in regards to how we have similarities in mental health issues," she said. "They have mental health issues in some of their communities, and that's something we could learn from each other. We learned so much while we were there."

The two delegations will now present their findings, and a report will be released at a later date.

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