Pathways to improve Indigenous Health: ‘Listen, and then listen some more—then act’

Reagan Bartel is a graduate of the Faculty of Nursing and the School of Public Health who works tirelessly to improve health inequities in Indigenous health.

By Tarwinder Rai - 06 May 2022

Throughout Reagan Bartel’s (BScN ‘04, MPH ‘19) 16 years as an intensive care unit (ICU) bedside nurse, she witnessed many health-care incidents that she says could have benefited from forward-thinking, community-driven approaches to address root causes. 

Instead of putting what she refers to as a “band-aid on issues that went a lot deeper than a single ICU stay,” she decided instead to seek long-term systemic solutions, pursuing graduate studies and leveraging her expertise as a front-line nurse to impact health policies, programs and services. 

Today, Bartel is an advocate and voice for Indigenous health and health equity. As the director of health for the Métis Nation of Alberta, Bartel is part of a team dedicated to identifying and sharing the unique health experiences of Métis Albertans through advocacy, policy, program and service delivery while focusing on the strength and resiliency of Métis in Alberta.

Her message to health-care practitioners is simple: “Listen, and then listen some more—then act.”

“Listening to what Indigenous people are saying allows health-care professionals to hear the strengths, challenges and solutions that are being put forward. After you’ve listened, then act. Anti-Indigenous racism is present. Acknowledge it. Fight it the same way that we fight infection because it is just as dangerous, maybe even more so. They say doctors are powerful—well, so are nurses. Use that power to seek change and hold each other and our health systems accountable.” 

Celebrating National Nursing Week, we spoke with Bartel about her time as a BScN student (‘04) in the Faculty of Nursing and as a master’s student at the School of Public Health (‘19), her desire to pursue graduate studies, her love for nursing and the passion behind her drive for supporting Indigenous health and well-being.

Why did you become a nurse?

I always knew that I wanted to be in a profession that lifts people up. I would love to say that I knew from the start that nursing would be where I would end up,but the reality is that my younger sister (Robyn Schroedl [nee: Innes]) began the discussion of nursing, and it just made so much sense—a career where we could care for others, be challenged and grow professionally. So we did it together! Two of us graduated in 2004 as sisters in real life and our professional lives. That context makes nursing even more special to me.

What do you love about the profession?

I love that there are no limits to where a nurse can be: front line in acute care or community settings; leading strategically behind the scenes or in crisis situations; research or improving best practices; located here in Canada or globally. Where you go with nursing is limited by a person’s choices and personal circumstances.

There is also an incredible bond between fellow nurses. Your nursing colleagues become a second family—and you support each other as you care for those who need you. Nursing is challenging. It requires the ability to think critically and quickly, to work independently and as part of a larger interdisciplinary team while caring for folks who may be at their most vulnerable. It’s for all these reasons that I love nursing.

What are some of the pathways to improving health among Indigenous peoples?

Position yourself and recognize your privilege. It’s not just a buzzword for nursing and public health. Being reflexive and truly exploring the spaces you occupy makes you a better ally to not only Indigenous people but all underserved populations. Explore the places and spaces you occupy and find the ways in which you can walk alongside your Indigenous patients/clients/communities. Building trust and relationships is critical. Take the time.

What did you focus your graduate research on?  

My MPH was within the Global Health stream with a graduate certificate in Communicable Diseases. The focus of my course-based MPH was to better understand how to effect change in low-resource settings, which may or may not be international. I spend much of my studies expanding on my knowledge around how to learn from communities and amplify their voices in policy and advocacy work. I like to think I have built on those lessons in my new role working currently as the director of health for the Métis Nation in Alberta.

How do you integrate the work you do now with this educational background? 

The leadership and critical thinking skills gained first from my nursing degree and then expanded upon through my public health degree have enabled me to support the design, implementation, evaluation, as well as advocacy for the community or individuals I walk alongside. I truly believe that nurses have a powerful role to play in the reform of health care. 

What support do you provide for Indigenous communities around Edmonton? 

My focus currently is related to supporting the health of Métis residing in Alberta. I try to amplify the voices of Métis Albertans, so advocacy is a large part of what I do on the day to day. I try to focus on partnerships that ensure Métis people are included in health policy and planning in ways that resonate with them; advancing Métis-specific programming; and addressing anti-Indigenous racism in health services wherever an opportunity arises.

Any plans for the future? 

My goal is to continue to seek out spaces where I can use both my nursing and public health skills to promote health, particularly for those who may be underserved because of systemic racism, antiquated health policies, and programs that exacerbate health inequity. I am hopeful that I can continue to contribute to spaces where harmful stereotypes are torn down and play a part in policy and advocacy initiatives that support cultural safety, trauma-informed approaches and self-determination over health.

Alumni who lead in new ways like Reagan Bartel are one of the reasons the Faculty of Nursing is ranked #1 in Canada and #9 worldwide. Our nursing community lead cutting-edge work that’s changing the face of global health. Learn more: