Indigenous Health Initiatives Program

Tebetha Kemble

Tibetha Kemble focused on recruiting and supporting a growing body of future Indigenous health professionals

By Sasha Roeder Mah

When Maskwacis Elder Rick Lightning was a young boy in the Indian Residential School (IRS) system, the care he and his fellow students received from health professionals was rudimentary at best. Tibetha Kemble recalls Elder Lightning sharing with her the trauma he experienced and how it ultimately shaped his unease as a father, when sending his children for doctor checkups or dentist appointments.

"Canada has a long and dark history with Indigenous health that has left a legacy of mistrust, anxiety and fear of the health-care system among many Indigenous peoples. Health professionals are a part of this legacy," says Kemble, Director of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's Indigenous Health Initiatives Program (IHIP) since the fall of 2017. "Indigenous physicians play a crucial role in building back that trust and facilitating safe relationships."

Kemble-along with administrator Kenton Boutillier, within the Division of Community Engagement-remains committed to and focused on achieving the mandate of the IHIP program, which is to recruit and support a growing body of future Indigenous health professionals throughout the faculty's five undergraduate programs. Since its inception in 1988, the IHIP has focused on addressing the lack of First Nation, Métis and Inuit students entering into and completing the medical doctor degree at the U of A. It has since broadened its scope to include all of the health-profession streams. 

(Below: Tibetha Kemble, Director of the Indigenous Health Initiatives Program,and Jill Konkin, Associate Dean of Community Engagement, are winners of the 2019 Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Award.)

In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People found one Indigenous physician for every 33,000 Indigenous people in Canada, compared to one for every 515 people in the non-Indigenous population.

The ensuing 20 years have seen that gap narrow marginally but, says Kemble, "we're not even halfway to what that commission recommended, which is the training of 10,000 new Indigenous physicians over 10 years."

To be part of the solution, Kemble and her team know they need to reach prospective students early. Her office is working on a plan that focuses on engaging Indigenous junior high and elementary students to provide the kinds of exposure and valuable hands-on experiences that foster a sense of place and belonging within the professions.

The IHIP is also working to support the faculty in building relationships with treaty organizations, individual First Nations, First Nation Education Authorities and other Indigenous representative organizations to encourage community members to consider a future in the health professions. If we can spark an interest in science, says Kemble, and build awareness among Indigenous youth about the journey into health professions and beyond, students will be better situated to enter the faculty.

The U of A recently eliminated a quota system that limited the number of Indigenous students admitted to its MD program through the IHIP process. Starting in fall 2019 and during the next admissions application cycle, all Indigenous students who meet all eligibility requirements through IHIP will be offered a place in the medical school. In addition, beginning in September 2019, and for each of the next four years, the MD program will award four new full-tuition scholarships to entering Indigenous students.

Recruiting Indigenous students is only part of Kemble's mandate. IHIP provides holistic, individualized supports for Indigenous students currently in the faculty. "I'm really excited about creating a community, because that's fundamental to our Indigenous way of being," she says. This means establishing an advisory council of elders to offer teachings about culture and medicine, and creating a powerful mentorship network with Indigenous graduates who are practising in the community. It also means a robust calendar of cultural events to keep members of the Indigenous community within the faculty connected to each other and to remind each other 'you're not alone'.

There are more signs of hope than of struggle, stresses Kemble. Today, "there is a desire among non-Indigenous students, faculty and staff to start to learn about Indigenous people and work in partnership and collaboration to strengthen our connection to each other."

To that end, following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation's final report and Calls to Action in early 2016, an Indigenous Health Course Working Group was established to design a new curriculum. Members from health sciences and community partners worked together on modules that will teach health-science undergraduates and medical students about the history and legacy of harmful colonial policy and the legacy of Indian Residential Schools. These legacies underpin the longstanding health and social inequities experienced disproportionately by Indigenous people. The historic collaboration-answering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call to action No. 24-resulted in a 12-module course being piloted this academic year. "Our work on this together demonstrates a real commitment to partnership and to create a space for Indigenous health here in the faculty," says Kemble, "and that's meaningful."

Kemble says the work she is doing is deeply personal for her. "As a First Nations woman, through this program, I get to be a part of shifting the system in whatever small way that I can to improve the health, well-being and social location of Indigenous people."