Holistic Medicine in Canadian Health Care

Celebrating Aboriginal History Month at Trout Lake in Vancouver

The Canadian nation is traditionally seen as a mosaic of different cultures that has originated from British and French ancestors within this country. However, oftentimes Aboriginal traditions and customs, and their impact on how we see ourselves and our surroundings is overseen. Looking at Canadian culture it is evident that it does not solely stem from British and/or French traditions. But when we compare ourselves and our beliefs to the ones of Native Americans, we find striking commonalities  (Saul, 3). The influence of Native American culture spans into our everyday lives and touches almost all aspects of our presence. Most notably within the last few decades, the field of medicine has been developing a more holistic approach to healing, as concluded by Hunter et al.  (“Linking Aboriginal”, 268). Many doctors and scientists see this as a ‘new’ advancement. However, they fail to look at Native communities, who have been using these medicinal practices since centuries. Hunter et al. describe that they entail looking at a sick individual as a whole, and also examining his mental and spiritual well-being rather than just treating a condition  (“Aboriginal Healing”, 14). Although this approach was mostly condemned by colonialists throughout the first few encounters, it is now resurfacing again. Modern, Canadian medicine ought to look back at the founders of these traditions and apply some of these traditions in order to offer more well-rounded medical services to communities.

Background on Aboriginal Medicinal Traditions

In Canada, traditional, Aboriginal, medicinal practices differ greatly from the European model. First Nations communities take a holistic approach to healing, and take the body and the mind in consideration when curing a disease or illness. This is based on the belief that “good health is a balance of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual elements” and that if “we neglect one, we get out of balance and our health suffers in all areas”  (“Aboriginal Cultures”, 4). The family and community of the ill person are, therefore, involved in the healing process, as they account for his or her mental well-being. Sick individuals would generally be nursed back to health communally, while they would be encouraged to heal the self in harmony with their spirit. Hunter et al. note that within Aboriginal communities “the concept of healing holistically is a fluid and dynamic process for an individual or community” and the healing “starts at any point in life and includes […] regaining balance (physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally), and sharing in the circle of life (respectful interactions with others)”  (“Aboriginal Healing”, 21). This approach, however, at the time of the first few encounters between Aboriginal individuals and European colonialists, was very different from the European way of dealing with ill people.

Background on European Medicinal Approach

Traditional, European health care teaches doctors to find the source of the disease or illness and treat it with medication. The individual and their mental well-being are rarely included in this process. The illness is inspected and treated in isolation from the person, who bears it. The interaction with the health care provider and treatment are very impersonal. Even nowadays, when we step into a clinic to seek relief of a migraine or an ache somewhere in our body, we usually get thrown a prescription for some drug at us after having exchanged a mere two sentences with the doctor about what was wrong with our body. Most doctors do not ask about the state of our mind, or our stress levels, or things that we worry about that may actually be the root of our illness. This “comprehensive care approach to patient care is often used with the belief that a health care team will ensure that a patient’s needs will be covered”, however, in reality this “leads to the fragmentation of care”  (Romeo, 352). Individuals, who suffer from mental illnesses or spiritual problems, are overlooked and not taken care of effectively because the root of their problems is left unaddressed. Traditional, European healing, therefore, rarely takes the individual into account and rather emphasizes its focus on the disease or illness itself.

Nonetheless, Europeans believed in the superiority of their medicines and shortly after the first encounter with European colonizers, Aboriginal communities were forced to abandon their traditional way of living, including their medicinal system. Due to the fact that First Nations were seen as inferior human beings, their healing traditions were quickly dismissed and suppressed. The Canadian government sought to assimilate First Nations peoples into Euro-Canadian culture  (Reimer). Through various assimilation tactics, such as residential schools, the traditions and culture of the Aboriginal people of Canada was slowly being eroded. To this day, Aboriginal communities struggle in reclaiming what was once theirs. It is difficult to re-establish a culture that has been suppressed for decades and still faces many challenges in their own sovereignty. In terms of health care and medicinal practices, the transfer of the knowledge from generation to generation is simply lacking, as discussed by Hunter et al.  (“Aboriginal Healing”, 14). They, furthermore find, that over the course of history “people have been taught that Indians are bad”  (“Aboriginal Healing”, 18). Therefore, traditional practices have not been used as much and have rather been replaced by comprehensive models that have originated from Europe.

Changes in Canadian Healing Practices

Health care practitioners across Canada are increasingly exploring and using the benefits of traditional approaches to healing and nursing. Increasingly “alternative healing is gaining ground, and its practitioners are reaping benefits”  (Huang, 2002). The strong connection between the body and the mind has been established in numerous studies, and the importance of thoughts and mental well-being on our physical illnesses is increasingly being acknowledged. For example, “stress diminishes white blood cell response to viral infected cells and to cancer cells”, and “vaccination is less effective in those who are stressed”  (Littrell, 2008). With findings such as these, it almost seems irrational to follow the European traditional model when healing patients, since it is established that this approach will not be as effective and efficient as it could be. Holistic approaches seem to benefit ill individuals more because they address some potential underlying issues, such as stress or depression. These factors can have a great impact on the length of the recovery from a sickness, as well on some occasions be the cause for them. Although there is still “much to learn about the relationships between the mind-brain functions”, its importance within the Canadian health care system is undeniable  (Fawcett, 280). It is increasingly becoming apparent in our daily lives.

As this paradigm shift is growingly affecting more and more individuals in our communities, it is important to ask where this movement is coming from and what impact it is having on our health. As mentioned above, it is evident that more practitioners turn towards a holistic approach in health care. There is a greater amount of research in the field and its benefits are becoming more evident. These changes can be attributed to the fact that Aboriginal communities are gaining strength and independence in Canada. Although legislative changes that benefit First Nations groups are miniscule to the overall effects that colonization had on their communities, they still have an important impact. The atrocities that were imposed on First Nations people by their colonizers are gaining public attention and the government is partially trying to amend its wrong-doings by apologizing publicly and changing some laws in order to recognize Aboriginals in Canada. Canada has formally acknowledged its mistakes in residential schools and has somewhat committed to reimburse Aboriginal communities for their sufferings. These developments aid in the re-gaining of First Nations culture and Aboriginal medicinal traditions that are becoming more prominent in the field of medicine. Overall “the links between Aboriginal healing traditions and health are becoming more explicit in studies that reveal Aboriginal people’s understanding of illness, health, and well-being”  (“Linking Aboriginal”, 277). The benefits of their holistic approach is gaining more respect and acceptance and current science is beginning to echo what Aboriginal communities have known for centuries. Non-aboriginal communities are learning that the process of healing holistically contributes to an increased sense of well-being through the use of traditional Aboriginal healing practices  (“Linking Aboriginal”, 272). These changes are having a positive effect on our health, as they present us with more options to heal our illnesses and diseases that may be even more effective than traditional, European approaches. Furthermore, it is evident that Aboriginal medicinal practices serve as a great influence and contributor to these developments.

Critical Analysis and Discussion

The power of the mind is great, and it can help us in healing diseases and illnesses. Western health care practitioners are now discovering these concepts that have been known to Aboriginal communities for centuries. We now have to acknowledge, as stated by Hunter et al. that the “Aboriginal perspective and worldview on the use of traditional healing are beneficial to the physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental aspects of health  (“Aboriginal Healing”, 13).

The Canadian health care system does not have to relearn a completely new theory that is foreign to our culture. Aboriginal healing concepts have been present to Europeans since colonization, and it is just a matter of applying it to our current system in order to maximize benefits for patients, as well as potentially lower the cost of health care. Medications, laboratory devices and computers are very expensive but relaxing a person and nurturing them back to healthy with warmth and sympathy is not. In our hectic society today it is difficult to stay grounded and relaxed. When our mind and spirit are not happy, our body tends to give in shortly afterwards. Several studies “revealed the importance of connecting with the self, providing community support with each other”  (“Linking Aboriginal”, 277). The implications for our health care system would be to incorporate “the concepts of balance, holism, and cultural healing into health care services”  (“Aboriginal Healing”, 13). The knowledge from Aboriginal health care providers that remains intact after years of suppression, should, therefore, supplement the current, Canadian system because numerous studies show its relevance and effectiveness when treating patients.


Canada is having problems with their health care system and can adopt a much better approach by incorporating more Aboriginal culture into it. Our system is too expensive and wait lists are enormous. While feeding Canadians a concoction of different chemicals and pills to suppress their pains, our health care providers fail to see that there can be a much more effective, cost-efficient approach to treating people. It involves incorporating traditional, Aboriginal healing practices into our system, so that many underlying factors to illnesses and diseases are addressed. The interaction between our body, mind and spirit is crucial to our overall well-being. It has been proven and proven over again in many studies and clinical cases. A body that has an ill mind heals slowly or not at all. The drastic increase in holistic health practiced over the recent years shows that Canadians are increasingly acknowledging this fact.

However, there is not enough public education on the origins of this approach, and many treat it as a brand new discovery. Although many studies are great because they support holistic medicine, they, nonetheless, examine a topic that has been already studied by many Aboriginal groups for centuries. This problem is part of a larger cultural issue that has been hovering over Canada since the days of colonization. It is based on the fact that European colonizers simply attempted to eradicate Aboriginal culture because they felt that they were superior. However, they were not completely successful and part of what constitutes Canadian culture today is “deeply Aboriginal”  (Saul, 3). Nonetheless, Canadians are able to remain ignorant of this fact and the Canadian government does not do much in order to change public opinion. What we think is “Canadian” is actually mostly “Aboriginal”. For example, we have to acknowledge that the holistic approach to health care is not a new discovery but that it is part of Aboriginal culture and that we have merely adapted it. Overall, “we cannot see how much of what we are is them how much of what we think of as our way, our values, our collective unconscious, is dependent on what we slowly absorbed living with them or near them over the centuries”  (Saul, 5). In order to benefit our personal health and our health care system as a whole, we must acknowledge the deep influence of Aboriginal culture in the current developments and growths in holistic medicinal approach. Through co-operation and respect for each other, the Canadian nation can grow and develop into a healthier society together.


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