If you’re driving down an isolated highway and you see someone with car troubles, what’s the first thing you do? Asking, “what seems to be the problem?” comes to mind. If the problem is something you can help with then I’m sure most people would lend a hand as best they could and be on their way.
Why does it seem that when people are talking about helping indigenous people that first question seems to be forgotten and people go straight to trying to help without even bothering to try and find out what the problem is in the first place?
That’s what I observed Tuesday night when I went to see a speaker on Aboriginal health in Canada. At the end of the talk, he had a few scenarios involving a health issue in a hypothetical Aboriginal community (cavities, obesity, etc.) and he asked the audience how they would address these issues. It’s funny how often people jump straight in and suggest that we implement different programs while being apparently completely ignorant to how many times before white people have entered these communities under the guise of “just wanting to help”. Or even of the fact that it might be a good idea to consult the community before doing anything the same way you’d ask someone what they think is wrong with their car before you start trying to help. ‘Consult the community’ was even given as an option for every scenario presented!
I was stuck being that annoying guy at the back who answers every question the same way: “consult the community, ask them if they consider this an important issue, and offer resources or help if they want it.” Even the scenarios got on my nerves by the end because, if we really want to be conscious of our colonial history, we shouldn’t be going in there with a specific health issue in mind. I suggested that rather than looking at the these scenarios one by one, we might start by approaching a community and asking them whether they had any health issues they consider to be important and wanted to address.
The most maddening of all was a suggestion that, to paraphrase, ‘to address obesity they should go back to their traditional ways because I like to hunt and I find it’s good exercise.’ Wait, what?
These are all well-intentioned people–they are attending an extra-curricular course on global health after all–mostly med students with some dentistry, social work, physical and occupational therapy and even epidemiologists thrown in. They’re looking to make a positive change in the world.
Where is this weird attitude coming from?