Tradition plays a big role in healthy living in the North — and it is important for traditional values to be appreciated by all Canadians on both sides of the 60th parallel, says Sangita Sharma, a professor and Indigenous health researcher. Sharma’s work in the Northwest Territories (funded in part by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canadian Cancer Society) has looked at nutrition, cancer screening and Indigenous seniors’ health in partnership with elders, community advisers and territorial agencies. “This is actually the research that the community wants,” she says. “It’s a chance in a lifetime to work with the most amazing people in a beautiful setting to ensure health and wellness.”
Here are several ways Sharma and the team are working with communities in the Arctic.
Ptarmigan to bears, whales to fish. A surge in on-the-land programs for Indigenous youngsters is encouraging more nutrient-dense (and delicious!) traditional diets, not to mention increased physical activity, says Sharma. Being on the land is also an opportunity for young people to spend quality time with elders, helping ensure that wisdom is passed from generation to generation.
In the Northwest Territories, fresh produce is not always available and it can be incredibly expensive. Frozen can be much cheaper, more adaptable and easier to incorporate into meals, says Sharma. Lentils are another ingredient that has found success, especially when added to caribou soups and stews.
To better absorb calcium and promote bone growth, you need vitamin D, which your body makes in the presence of sunlight. But sun isn’t the best provider in a northern climate. A traditional diet, however, provides vitamin D from liver, seal meat, whale blubber and fatty fish.
It can be challenging for someone from the Northwest Territories to travel to Alberta for medical care, which means being far from home without family members and a support network, says Sharma. When medical professionals understand these circumstances, they can play an important role in making the patient feel more comfortable.
Sharma is one of many speakers to share expertise at alumni events. Visit ualberta.ca/alumni/events.