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OBJECTIVE: To inform health care workers about the health status of Canada's native people. DATA SOURCES: A MEDLINE search for articles published from Jan. 1, 1989, to Nov. 31, 1995, with the use of subject headings "Eskimos" and "Indians, North American," excluding specific subject headings related to genetics and history. Case reports were excluded. Material was also identified from a review of standard references and bibliographies and from consultation with experts. STUDY SELECTION: Review and research articles containing original data concerning epidemiologic aspects of native health. Studies of Canadian populations were preferred, but population-based studies of US native peoples were included if limited Canadian information was available. DATA EXTRACTION: Information about target population, methods and conclusions was extracted from each study. RESULTS: Mortality and morbidity rates are higher in the native population than in the general Canadian population. The infant mortality rates averaged for the years 1986 to 1990 were 13.8 per 1000 live births among Indian infants, 16.3 per 1000 among Inuit infants, and only 7.3 per 1000 among all Canadian infants. Age-standardized all-cause mortality rates among residents of reserves averaged for the years 1979 to 1983 were 561.0 per 100,000 population among men and 334.6 per 100,000 among women, compared with 340.2 per 100,000 among all Canadian men and 173.4 per 100,000 among all Canadian women. Compared with the general Canadian population, specific native populations have an increased risk of death from alcoholism, homicide, suicide and pneumonia. Of the aboriginal population of Canada 15 years of age and older, 31% have been informed that they have a chronic health problem. Diabetes mellitus affects 6% of aboriginal adults, compared with 2% of all Canadian adults. Social problems identified by aboriginal people as a concern in their community include substance abuse, suicide, unemployment and family violence. Subgroups of aboriginal people are at a greater-than-normal risk of infectious diseases, injuries, respiratory diseases, nutritional problems (including obesity) and substance abuse. Initial data suggest that, compared with the general population, some subgroups of the native population have a lower incidence of heart disease and certain types of cancer. However, knowledge about contributing factors to the health status of aboriginal people is limited, since the literature generally does not assess confounding factors such as poverty. CONCLUSIONS: Canadian aboriginal people die earlier than their fellow Canadians, on average, and sustain a disproportionate share of the burden of physical disease and mental illness. However, few studies have assessed poverty as a confounding factor. Future research priorities in native health are best determined by native people themselves.