TORONTO (Reuters) - The Inuit in Canada's far north have lifespans 12 to 15 years shorter than the average Canadian's, government data showed on Wednesday, putting the aboriginal people on a par with developing countries such as Guatemala and Mongolia.
At 64 to 67 years, Inuit life expectancy "appears to have stagnated" between 1991 and 2001, and falls well short of Canada's average of 79.5 years, which has steadily risen, Statistics Canada said.
"A lot of people see life in the Arctic as pristine, where Inuit live problem-free, but in reality people are trying to raise families and live a better life in difficult conditions," said Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization.
Inuit now live as long as the average Canadian did in the 1940s, Simon noted in an interview. "We didn't even have medicare (publicly funded health-care) then, so yes, this is pretty shocking."
Inuit have the lowest life expectancy among Canada's three aboriginal groups, which also include Indians and Metis. Together, the groups number 1.2 million, or about 3.8 percent of Canada's total population of around 32 million.
The Inuit live primarily in the huge northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, as well as in the Northwest Territories, northern Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Statistics Canada based its data on a 2001 census of regions where Inuit represented at least 80 percent of the population.
In 2006 there were about 50,500 Inuit in Canada. The data released on Wednesday shows the further north they lived, the shorter their life expectancy.
The numbers are similar to those of Guatemala and Mongolia, where life expectancy is 68 and 66 years, respectively, according to the World Health Organization.
While native peoples in Canada suffer from higher unemployment, lower incomes and less formal education than the national average, the Inuit are usually the worst off in those categories, Statscan said.
Inuit are more likely to live in crowded homes in need of repair, the data shows. Meanwhile the group's infant mortality rate was about four times that of the general population.
"The overcrowding on the one hand disrupts the social life of the people, and on the other hand is a recipe for chronic diseases to develop, like respiratory problems in babies," said Simon.
Other health problems such as diabetes and tuberculosis are more prevalent among Inuit than in the rest of the country. As well, natives are far more likely to commit suicide.
"Although we have the right to medical services, ours is lagging behind in the north," said Simon. "This is what brings life expectancy way down for Inuit."
Reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Rob Wilson