Is there a plague on both our houses?

We take a lot for granted in Canada, don’t we? Or is it just me? I mean, I know there is poverty, food insecurity and discrimination for some here, as well as many of the other things that plague the rest of the world, but it still seems to be a pretty nice place… Well, for me again, I guess.

I suppose that not only do we live in our own confirmation bubbles, we also have to contend with our situational biases. We are influenced by what we experience around us, and depending on where we work or live, we see but through a glass darkly.

And yet, every once in a while, the world comes knocking; we must listen for it. At the very least, it’s important for us to acknowledge the request and hear it out -and while we’re at it, remember the room we have. Surely we have more than enough; surely there’s a Golden Rule in every language, every culture, every religion…

I have to admit that I am naïve about these things; I didn’t really think very much about what that meant -especially for newcomers who are greeted not only with culture shock, but expectation shock as well: things are not always as they were led to believe -even here in Canada. As an article in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism  ( )pointed out, there is ‘a “healthy immigrant effect”, in which foreign-born individuals arrive in Canada in better health than that of the Canadian born but experience health declines with increasing years in Canada… Compared with the Canadian born, recent newcomers experience a lower incidence of chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; however, they experience a slow increase in the incidence of chronic diseases over 20–25 years until it converges with that of the Canadian born.’

Indeed, the authors write of an emerging trend ‘in which older immigrant children from privileged backgrounds may be at risk of overweight and obesity… [These] are likely influenced by a variety of intersecting pathways related to accelerated nutrition transition, their families’ conceptualization of life in Canada, and social structures that limit progress in meeting their goals. Refugee children are at risk of stunting and high cholesterol, whereas immigrant children are more at risk of overweight or obesity, especially if they are older and are from privileged backgrounds in low-income countries… This relationship may be mediated by beliefs that plump children are considered healthy.’ So, the authors conclude that ‘Health and social service systems must become sensitive to these risks to support effective screening and culturally sensitive health promotion programming to prevent chronic disease.’

Two of the authors, of that study, Hassan Vatanparast, a professor of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan, and Ginny Lane, the first author and Postdoctoral Fellow in Public Health at the same university, have mercifully provided a more readable article in the

As they point out, their study of ‘300 immigrant and refugee children in Saskatoon and Regina, Saskatchewan, found that these newcomer children often embrace a Western diet and sedentary lifestyle. Some parents are unaware of the dangers of overeating and the calories attached to the Western diet… Some immigrants find their pre-immigration dreams confounded by circumstance. They live in relative poverty, working dead-end jobs that fail to exploit their experience and potential.’

But sometimes it is even more basic than that for the children: ‘Refugee children who have known hunger can also find it hard to control their appetite… There is an abundance of food here,” said a health-care provider in Regina. “Sometimes children coming from a refugee camp with very little to eat come here and eat too much,” added an immigrant service provider.’

‘Research has shown that health disparities among ethnic groups can be reduced when individuals are able to achieve their desired level of socio-economic attainment. As such, living on a low income for extended periods can contribute to physical and mental health problems and a turn towards unhealthy affordable food. On a low income, a hamburger and fries… cost less than a salad, [and] will fill a rumbling stomach.’

But, you know, it’s not enough to allow guests into your house -you have to welcome them. Understand their needs. The authors write of some of the challenges: ‘Many newcomers spoke of their aspirations to attain a good standard of living in Canada and the daily struggles they experienced to achieve this. Some had become disillusioned with life in Canada because of their difficulties achieving the lifestyle they had expected, or aspired toward.’ I suppose this is not unexpected in people coming from such diverse, and often war-torn backgrounds, but I have to admit I felt a real sadness when I read that ‘One refugee was so disheartened by the difficulties he encountered in getting a good job and providing for his family that he wanted to be sent back.’ I’m sorry, but this will just not do.

“Refugees and immigrants are in survival mode, because doctors, engineers and professors are pushing shopping carts,” said one service provider, commenting on the rising number of food insecure immigrants.’ In a country as large and variegated as Canada, a country that could absorb and prosper from this pool of talent with little difficulty, we simply have to do better than this. ‘Research has shown that health disparities among ethnic groups can be reduced when individuals are able to achieve their desired level of socio-economic attainment.’

Surely an opportunity like this is too good to ignore -with a little thought it could be used to foster new ideas… How about using some of the expertise -and those eager to work or be retrained- to concentrate on renewable energy, or designing innovative solutions to climate change? Our ageing infrastructure could certainly use some improvement, and likely some fresh and creative ideas as well. If we really do live in a global community, isn’t it about time we met our neighbours, and listened to their stories while we told them our own? Isn’t it about time we realized we’re all in this together -sink or swim? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some other shoulders to lean on…?


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