Fresh Faces || Tibetha Kemble

Q & A with the director of the University of Alberta's Indigenous Health Initiatives Program.

Laura Vega - 26 June 2018

Tibetha Kemble joined the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry in 2017 as the director of the Division of Community Engagement's Indigenous Health Initiatives Program (IHIP). She brings more than a decade of experience working with Indigenous peoples and communities through her work in government. Holding a master's degree in educational policy studies and currently completing her PhD, she came to the faculty to help forge a shared path to better support improved health outcomes for Indigenous peoples, and working to close the gap in the underrepresentation of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples in health professions.

Why did you decide to come to the University of Alberta?

I've spent the bulk of my career working with Indigenous communities at the federal and provincial level and have worked in nearly every field-except for health. Finding a pathway into the field of health was important as I am keenly aware of the effects of poor health on the trajectory of overall well-being and other social outcomes among Indigenous peoples.

What would you like to accomplish in this job?

I tend to view things from a systems-level perspective, and so I pursue outcomes (or shifts in behaviour and action) as opposed to outputs (or numbers) to affect system-level changes. Through that lens, I would like to be a part of making changes within this system to affect improved health outcomes among Indigenous peoples which is accomplished by understanding the ways in which all parts of the system must work together to make meaningful advancements. Coordinating all the parts is a challenge but an opportunity that I am excited about.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Two things come to mind: people and learning. I work amongst a host of dedicated and passionate people in the faculty and I am privileged to work with an incredible team of like-minded and laser-focused colleagues who have carried the torch for some time before I got here. Getting to work with Dr. Jill Konkin (associate dean and division director), Kenton Boutillier (IHIP administrator) and Dr. Daniel McKennitt (IHIP postdoctoral fellow) is rewarding in that they each bring a different lens and they broaden and deepen my understanding of the facets of the path ahead. Lastly, it is rewarding to see some parts of the IHIP Strategic Plan come to life, such as the soon-to-open Indigenous Gathering Space.

Why is it important for the University of Alberta to have an office like the IHIP?

The IHIP was established in 1988 with the mandate to support closing the gap in the underrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in health professions. The founders of the program, Dr. Doug Wilson, Dr. Anne Fanning and Anne-Marie Hodes, recognized then, as it is still relevant today, that there is a significant gap in the number of Indigenous physicians and other health professionals to meet the identified need. It was only when the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) report was released, did we come to know the true depth of that gap which was at the time one Indigenous physician for every 33,000 Indigenous people, versus one non-Indigenous physician for every 515 non-Indigenous people.

Twenty-two years after the RCAP, we know that we're not even halfway to reaching the recommended goal of training 10,000 Indigenous health professionals within 10 years. Through that lens, the IHIP is important to help keep us focused on the original purpose and intent of the program and to ensuring that Indigenous students who want a place in medical schools, have one.

The other reason is that it helps bring forward the understanding of the vital role Indigenous medical professionals have in making important contributions to the health-care system broadly, but to supporting improved health outcomes among Indigenous peoples specifically. We know that Indigenous health professionals encourage and foster greater engagement by Indigenous peoples with the health-care system because they understand the patients lived experience and provide culturally-safe care that reduces mistrust, anxiety and fear that arises from the historical mistreatment of Indigenous peoples within the health system and as a result of Indian Residential schools. When taken together, both are important to improving the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples which, as we now know, has gotten worse, not better, over time.

What other projects are coming for the Indigenous Health Initiatives Program?

Recruiting and supporting Indigenous students remains a priority for us. Additionally, increasing Indigenous student interest and engagement in medicine and health sciences is another important part of our work ahead. Some of the initiatives within the recent past such as the MD AIDE and Heritage Youth Researcher Summer (HYRS) programs, are important and are already making strides towards those ends. We are encouraged by the high level of engagement by Indigenous students with these programs and hope to see more and more Indigenous peoples entering into, and graduating from, the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

Another important aspect of the IHIP is the Indigenous Health course being launched this fall. After two years of dedicated work and community engagement, partners in Indigenous health are coming together to make this a reality in all the faculty's undergraduate programs. This is such an important step for the faculty in responding to the TRC Calls to Action that seek to redress the legacy of Indian Residential Schools and advance the process of reconciliation.

We are also developing a SIK ("Science is Kool") lab, meant for outreach for younger students up to fourth grade. Indigenous students generally decide if they are going to drop out of school by Grade 8. So we would like to increase awareness about STEM professions early on, spark an interest in science and generate an understanding of the journey to health professions and beyond.

We will focus on solidifying relationships with internal and external partners, and especially with Indigenous communities. Relationships are foundational to our work and a treasured part of my role. We have so much to learn from each other and our program is both strengthened and enriched by partnerships and relationships.

We will also be working on advancing other ideas such as the Indigenous student calendar with lunch-and-learn activities, and potentially an Elder-in-residence and creating an Indigenous mentorship network.