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Truth and reconciliation

A letter from the Winnipeg Health Region

BY MILTON SUSSMAN
Winnipeg Health Region President & CEO
Wave, July / August 2016

Milton Sussman
Milton Sussman

I recently met with 40 leaders from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority to discuss ways to improve our relationship with Indigenous communities, organizations, families and individuals.

The discussion was hosted by a working group struck last year to draft a response to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As most readers will know, the commission was established in 2008 to inform Canadians about the history of residential schools and the impact they had on Indigenous people.
Last year, the commission, chaired by Senator Murray Sinclair, published a report listing 94 “calls to action” that could be taken to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of reconciliation between First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and other Canadians.

Included on the list are several calls to action that speak specifically to the health system and the health status of Indigenous people. They include calls to:

  • Live up to Treaty agreements on health-care services.
  • Close gaps in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
  • Establish healing centres to address the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual harms caused by residential schools.
  • Increase the number of Indigenous people working in the health-care system.
  • Provide cultural competency training to all health-care professionals.

You can read the commission’s full report at www.trc.ca.

We here at the Region can’t address all of these issues on our own. But it is important that we make every effort to address as many as we can – a point made clear by several speakers during the leadership meeting, including Dr. Marcia Anderson DeCoteau, a medical officer of health, and Betty Ross, a spiritual adviser.

As they explained, the actions we take now have the potential to affect the next seven generations of Indigenous people. The thought is an intriguing one – it underscores the idea that, just as we are a product of the generations that came before us, we also have the ability to affect the generations that follow. 

To understand the importance of addressing the issues outlined in the commission report, it helps to have an understanding of the Indian Act of 1867 and how it affected the relationship between First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and other Canadians.

This legislation paved the way for the marginalization of Indigenous people across Canada by providing a framework for their control and forced assimilation. Among other things, it prohibited Indigenous people from leaving their reserve without permission from an Indian agent and prohibited their participation in democratic processes. The right to vote, for example, was not fully available to Indigenous people until 1960.

It also laid the foundation for the creation of residential schools. Children who were forced to attend these schools had little – if any – communication with their families. They were kept from speaking their own languages or practising their traditional cultures or spiritualities. Traditional healing practices were also banned, even though rates of illness and death were higher in the schools than in Indigenous communities.

As health-care providers, we all need to be mindful of how these and other elements of colonization have influenced how we perceive and interact with Indigenous people accessing care.

I believe we can start by being more aware of when our own biases may be affecting how we interact with an individual. We can take time to understand the context of a person’s life, whether they come from a remote reserve or an urban setting, for example. We can think about how their previous experience affects how they feel about being in a health-care setting, and what we can do to make their visit a positive one.

While we largely approach health care from a Western perspective, we need to listen to what a person identifies as important to them. We need to be open to combining Western medicine with Indigenous healing, and be respectful and supportive as we do it. The way we’ve done things to date hasn’t worked. We won’t achieve healing and reconciliation if we, as an organization, are determining the terms of the reconciliation. We need to engage with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and organizations, and understand from their perspectives how we can reset our relationships and work according to the principles of reconciliation.

Although our working group’s response to the commission’s report won’t be completed until later this year, I think it is fair to say that its recommendations will build on efforts to address attitudinal racism within the health-care system and increase the number of Indigenous people working in the health-care system.

There are many ways to do this. For example, the Region is in the process of launching the San’yas Indigenous Cultural Safety Training Program. Set to be officially launched this fall, the program is designed to help health-care workers gain a better understanding of the root causes of the health inequities Indigenous people experience. It also suggests how health-care providers can deliver culturally safe and competent care to patients and clients.

There are also efforts underway to boost the number of Indigenous people working in health care. The Medical Careers Exploration Program (MCEP), which is the result of a partnership between the Region’s Pan Am Clinic and the Winnipeg School Division, is one example. As our story in issue points out, the program has introduced a number of Indigenous students to the possibility of a career in health care.

There is, of course, much more we can do. As a health-care organization, we must strive to better serve all of our patients and clients. But it is also important to make sure we are working to understand and eliminate the barriers that may prevent certain groups, such as Indigenous people, from accessing the care they need. In doing so, perhaps we can make a contribution to the reconciliation process now underway, and create a better future for the generations to come.

Wave: November / December 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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