You were the first Aboriginal person to graduate from the PhD nursing program at the University of Alberta. What role did your culture play in your decision to enter health care?
When I was a kid I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who are from a Métis community west of Edmonton [Lac St. Anne], and I always knew there were things about my community, my culture and my family that were really important. The majority of Aboriginal people—whether you are First Nations, Métis, Inuit or Dené—think about things from a perspective of being an important part of a collective, and the well-being of that collective. From my perspective, the more educated people you have [in your community], the more people you have in decision-making roles, the more say you are going to have.
Previously, you were associate director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Aboriginal Peoples’ Health [IAPH]—what did you learn from your work there?
All of my graduate work, undergraduate work and nursing were largely focused on improving the health of Aboriginal people. We are all humans, we all need love, we all need acceptance, we all need to be safe, we all need to have good health; but there has to be acknowledgment and awareness that Aboriginal people have a different world view. Working with Aboriginal populations requires engagement, relationship building and trust.
When I first went to work with Dr. [Malcolm] King, the scientific director of IAPH, he wanted to go back to the Aboriginal community to learn what directions the Institute should be going in and focusing on in relation to health and health research. We carried out a national dialogue process with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis elders, youth, health practitioners and Aboriginal researchers. In carrying out this process, we came to understand on a much deeper level the diversity and uniqueness of Aboriginal people across the country. I’m very proud of that.
What are some of the major health issues affecting Aboriginal communities today?
Access to culturally appropriate care is a big one. Another is the environment that many contemporary Aboriginal people are growing up in. There is more poverty, lower levels of education, higher levels of smoking. If you have a young mother of five who is a newly diagnosed diabetic and she’s never had a home-cooked meal in her life, as a nurse or health care practitioner, where do you begin?
Is lack of access to clean drinking water in Aboriginal communities having a detrimental effect on Aboriginal health?
I’m not an expert on the subject, but how could it not? Clean water is a basic need—it’s the main element of which our bodies are made. The implications on your health and wellness are massive. It’s not only a physical need, there’s also a mental, emotional and spiritual need and purpose for water. If you don’t have clean water, you don’t have the wildlife, the plants—those things that are part of your sustenance.
How do you think health care providers and governments should begin to address health issues affecting Aboriginals?
There are unique needs in every Aboriginal community. You can’t take one formula and plant it on top of everyone and expect it to work.
Aboriginal people look at health through a ‘holistic lens.’ They have their own healers, their own philosophies on health and wellness. The teachings from elders and healers—the idea of the community as a living, breathing, moving, changing organism—influence how you approach their health care.
We are starting to gain capacity in Aboriginal health research by communities themselves, who are developing their own research protocols and ethics. It’s about empowerment. The potential resources within the Aboriginal community are phenomenal and if they are recognized, supported and nurtured, then all Canadians will benefit, not just Aboriginal people.
What advice would you give to current students in health sciences who want to pursue a career in Aboriginal health care?
One of the things that I try to teach students is when we make assumptions of each other it will affect the choices we give those people in any area of life. The main thing is for people to respect each other. Health care is a rich and challenging field to work in, and we need to think and act on a human level before we can see any real improvement.
To learn more about the Canadian Institute of Aboriginal Health Research, visit www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca.
Interviewer Lucila Triador is an international student from Argentina working towards her master’s degree in Human Nutrition in the Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science. Her research aims to evaluate the effectiveness of a garden-based nutrition education intervention by measuring changes in attitudes and preferences toward fruits and vegetables in Cree schoolchildren from an Alberta First Nation community.