Residential school data provide insight into BMI, TB

April 22, 2015

Dr. Paul Hackett was interviewed for the prestigious journal, The Lancet, about some of SPHERU’s historical research into the social determinants of health for Aboriginal people.

The online article by Angela Pirisi looks at the health disparities for Aboriginal people in Canada and focuses on different work across the country, including that of SPHERU. Specifically, it touches on the research looking into the epidemic of type 2 diabetes among the First Nations population.

Touchwood Hills patients (Peel Collection)
Touchwood Hills patients (Peel Collection)

It represents part of the work that Hackett and Dr. Sylvia Abonyi have been doing in terms of exploring the historical antecedents for present-day health disparities for Aboriginal people.  Some of this has seen them examine residential school entrance exam data (1919-1953), in the process of creating a unique and substantial database of historical body mass index (BMI) values.

Hackett and Abonyi, with co-author Dr. Roland Dyck, presented some of their BMI findings in Fredericton in November at the Canadian Association for Physical Anthropology conference, while Abonyi will be presenting more BMI findings on behalf of the group at a conference on circumpolar health in Finland this year. A paper summarizing key findings has also been prepared for publication. Hackett plans to do a presentation before the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Centre for Aboriginal Health Research (CAHR) at the University of Manitoba ( and the manuscript will be submitted for publication following an informal review by First Nation colleagues and partners: “We’re going to get their feedback before we submit it,” Hackett said.

In November 2014 Hackett presented in Toronto on the legacy of tuberculosis in residential schools and how it spread, again drawing on historical data. Hackett has also submitted a paper called “Tuberculosis, Years Ago: Reconciliation and First Nations Narratives of Tuberculosis in the Canadian Prairie Provinces,” as well as an in-house paper showcasing SPHERU’s history work. “Everything we’re doing now is laying the groundwork for the larger work,” Hackett says.

While the data provide a valuable look into historical population health, the research also raises some ethical questions about stewardship of historical Aboriginal population health data, most of which is publicly accessible, and how it should be used. Hackett recognizes the challenges and emphasizes the need for collaboration with partners in the Aboriginal community, both in the research phase and after the papers have been published. With regard to the residential school data, one idea could be to have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission act as the permanent storehouse, so that residential school survivors could easily access their own records.


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