First Nations Seniors: The Issue


Seniors make up a relatively small proportion of Canada’s Aboriginal population (in 1996, only 3.5% of the reported Aboriginal population were seniors). However, Aboriginal seniors are living longer, and their population is growing significantly – the number of Aboriginal seniors is expected to triple between 1996 and 2016. At the same time, the average life expectancy of Aboriginal people remains significantly lower than the Canadian average.

Also, among Aboriginal seniors, the prevalence (self-reported) of certain chronic conditions such as heart problems, hypertension, diabetes, and arthritis is often double or triple the rate reported by Canadian seniors overall. Excerpt from Canada’s Aging Population: A report prepared by Health Canada in collaboration with the Interdepartmental Committee on Aging and Seniors Issues. Retrieved January 2009 from Canada’s Aging Population – Government of Canada

First Nations, Inuit and Métis have long faced poorer mental health outcomes, serious issues with respect to substance abuse, as well as higher rates of suicide than the general population. The underlying causes of these challenges are directly linked to the historical legacy of the Indian residential schools and child welfare systems, which are known to have eroded traditional First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultural practices, family structures, parenting skills, and community support networks, and to have also contributed to social and economic marginalization. (Excerpt from draft Towards Recovery and Well Being: A Framework for a Mental Health Strategy for Canada, Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2009)

The following was taken from The Strategic Action Plan for First Nations and Inuit Mental Wellness : First Nations and Inuit Mental Wellness Advisory Committee, Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2007. Retrieved March 2009:

In many First Nations communities, good health was, and often still is, a result of a balance of one’s entire being, ‘mind, body and spirit.’

Mental health is but one component of an intricate web of First Nations peoples’ genealogical make up. For First Nations, history, culture, traditions, spirituality and identity are all critical to well being and positive mental health. Without these essential foundations, well-being and good health cannot be attained. (Source: NAHO)

Through extensive dialogue and consultation, the Mental Wellness Advisory Committee helped develop a definition of mental wellness that is accepted by First Nations people. Mental wellness is described as:
lifelong journey to achieve wellness and balance of body, mind and spirit. Mental wellness includes self-esteem, personal dignity, cultural identity and connectedness in the presence of a harmonious physical, emotional, mental and
spiritual wellness. Mental wellness must be defined in terms of the values and beliefs of Inuit and First Nations people.” (Source: Mental Wellness Framework, Mental Wellness Advisory Committee, 2002).

The Mental Health Advisory Committee helped develop a broad vision of mental wellness for First Nations and Inuit). The vision is that:
“First Nations and Inuit embrace the achievement of whole health (physical, mental,
emotional, spiritual, social and economic well-being) through a comprehensive and coordinated approach that respects, values and utilizes traditional and cultural knowledge, methodologies, languages and ways of knowing.”

The Medicine Wheel

The number four is very sacred to the First Nations. The Medicine Wheel is an ancient Aboriginal abstract symbol that stands for “the sacredness of four.” It is used by many First Nations and Métis as a symbol of the life,
health and values of an individual, community or Nation. It is generally thought to have come from the Indigenous
cultures of the Great Plains, but it’s used by many different cultures throughout North America. However, it’s not used in all the traditions of all First Nations and Métis. It isn’t an Inuit concept and isn’t used in Inuit
cultural practices in any way.

Each Nation has its own concepts, relationships and teachings about the Medicine Wheel, but as an example, here is some information about the Medicine Wheel from the Ojibway (or Anishinaabe) perspective.

How does the number four work in the Medicine Wheel? Usually, four spokes create four
quadrants on the Wheel. The four quadrants can represent many different ideas or concepts and their relationship to each other, the universe and the individual, such as:

- The four directions;
- The four seasons;
- The four parts of a person: mental (mind),
physical (body), spiritual and
- The four stages of life: childhood, youth, adulthood and
- The four distinct colours which also have symbolic


There are also four sacred medicines that represent each colour and wind direction:

1. Wiingashk (sweetgrass) represents the hair of mother earth, so it is often braided. Wiingashk is known for its beautiful aroma when it’s used for cleansing. The end of the sweetgrass braid is lit, which produces a cleansing and purifying smoke.

2. Semma (tobacco) is used to offer prayers at the Sacred Fire where people burn semma and tobacco ties. Semma is also smoked in sacred pipes.

3. Keezhik (cedar) is cleaned from the branches and used to make a smoke smudge. Keezhik is also very useful for cleansing and helping to get rid of negative or “bad” energy.

4. Shkodawabuk (sage) is also used for smudging. Sage and cedar are women’s medicines. They are the only medicines that women on their moon can use to smudge with.

Reaching Out: A Guide to Communicating With Aboriginal Seniors

Reaching Out suggests ways to package and deliver information to improve the chances it will reach Aboriginal seniors and be understood. The strength of this approach lies in its origin: knowledge, experience and direction provided by Aboriginal seniors living in several communities across Canada.

Reaching Out was developed to address the findings of the Aboriginal Seniors Information Project, a study sponsored by the Division of Aging and Seniors, Population Health Directorate, Health Promotion and Programs Branch, Health Canada. The project showed that Aboriginal seniors are among the most difficult seniors to reach with information related to federal programs and services. For a variety of reasons, Aboriginal seniors have limited knowledge of the programs and services available to them, and in many cases, government has been ineffective in providing information to them.

Retrieved from the Public Health Agency of Canada January 2009.


An Annotated Bibliography: Cultural Intervention Models in Mental Health (May 2006)
Provides an inventory of scholarly literature on cultural considerations and interventions in the field of mental health and wellness, primarily focused on Aboriginal and Indigenous Peoples (National Aboriginal Health Organization – First Nations Centre).

What is the Medicine Wheel
A description of the medicine wheel, produced by the Canadian Health Network with the help of the National Aboriginal Health Organization.

This curriculum is designed as a catalyst for dialogue and change within the mental health and addictions system. It is intended for use by as broad a range of people as possible; mental health consumers, their families, practitioners, managers, policy makers, politicians and members of the public.