New Study Links Anti-Aboriginal Racism to Drug Use and Gambling Problems

Gordon Kent, Edmonton Journal, June 28, 2012

Aboriginal Edmonton residents face such high levels of discrimination that it’s apparently pushing them toward prescription drug and gambling abuse, a new study has found.

About 83 per cent of respondents to a 2010 questionnaire had experienced racism at least once in the past year, far more prejudice than black and Latino Americans see in a lifetime, according to research led by University of Lethbridge epidemiologist Cheryl Currie.

This poor treatment, which happens most often in public places, schools, stores and restaurants, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorders that are linked to problems with drugs and gambling for people living in cities.

“It’s the first study to show a link between racism and gambling among any population in the world that we’re aware of,” said Currie, an assistant professor in the U of L faculty of health sciences.

“I wasn’t expecting this … I didn’t think racism to be so high and I didn’t expect it to be so strongly correlated with prescription drug dependence and gambling, especially through PTSD.”

Hilda Francis, an aboriginal woman who has lived in Edmonton for about 30 years, said she runs into some form of racism two or three times a year.

She and a co-worker were told to leave a department store for no reason at the beginning of June and an employee wanted to look through their bags at the door, which Francis said she refused to allow.

About 15 years ago, a grocery store clerk served everyone waiting in line except Francis, and wouldn’t even respond to other customers who insisted she was next.

When she told the manager what had happened, he fired the clerk on the spot, Francis said.

The Boyle Street Community Services housing outreach worker has also run into landlords who won’t provide homes for prospective native tenants, sometimes stating outright “we don’t rent to your kind.”

“I see (discrimination) all the time. I take clients in to go shopping and I see people looking at them and watching them,” Francis said.

“It’s not right, what’s happening out there … it pisses me off.”

About one-third of the 381 Edmonton adults Currie interviewed had gambling problems, compared to less than five per cent of the general population.

Approximately five per cent were dependent on prescription drugs, five times higher than average.

“In the news we see constantly ‘aboriginal people have health problems, what should we do about it?’,” Currie said.

“Perhaps we should be asking more sophisticated questions about why they have health problems.”

Participants in the study talked about being attacked and called a “savage,” hearing an emergency-room nurse say “treat the Indians last,” and “white washing” by dying their hair and changing clothes to look less aboriginal.

There were also dark-skinned women who encountered fewer problems by allowing people to think they were Iraqi, said Currie, whose research took into account poverty, lifestyle and other factors.

She thinks more policies and programs, including psychological treatment, are required to deal with these issues.

“These people are suffering discrimination walking down Whyte Avenue,” said Currie, who did her research while at the University of Alberta.

“People are leaning out car windows to yell at them. They need someone to talk to.”

While involvement in spiritual or cultural events helps protect the health of urban aboriginal residents, participating in these activities seems to increase the amount of discrimination they face, Currie said.

More research is required to explain why that happens. One of five papers expected to be produced from the current work, which was suggested by an aboriginal advisory committee, ran recently in the Journal of Gambling Studies.

With more than half Canada’s aboriginal population living in cities, these issues are becoming increasingly important, Currie said.

“If we want to improve aboriginal health, we have to look more at what could be (affecting) their health, not just lifestyle factors … Sometimes racism is unconscious. We have to think about our attitudes,” she said.

“We think aboriginal people choose to smoke and drink and use drugs … Are they choosing, or are they coping?”

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