July 18, 2019

Students explore challenges in Indigenous health and the importance of decolonization

First Decolonizing Healthcare Congress Day comes to UCalgary

Many gaps in health-care access and health outcomes exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. These disparities are in part produced by injustices, racism, violence and oppression issues many people are uncomfortable discussing.

The inaugural Decolonizing Healthcare Congress Day was held at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) on June 22 to look at the unique health-care challenges facing Indigenous Peoples and to acknowledge the importance of decolonization the process of recognizing Canada’s colonial history and incorporating Indigenous perspectives — in Canadian institutions.

  • Photo above: The inaugural 2019 Decolonizing Healthcare Congress Day student organizing committee with Grandmother Doreen Spence. Photo by Arjun Maini, Cumming School of Medicine

The Faculty of Nursing, CSM and Faculty of Graduate Studies supported the student-led initiative. About 150 people attended the event including students, researchers, educators, faculty, and health practitioners from diverse backgrounds.

The event began with blessings and prayers from Grandmother Doreen Spence, a traditional Cree elder who spoke on the importance of kindness and resilience — traits that were central tenets in her work as a licensed practical nurse and community activist. Paired keynote addresses were given by Drs. Chris Sarin, MD, and Lisa Richardson, MD.

Attendees enjoyed lunch prepared by Aahksoyo’p Indigenous Comfort Food.

Attendees enjoyed lunch prepared by Aahksoyo’p Indigenous Comfort Food.

Arjun Maini, Class of 2021, Cumming School of Medicine

As the deputy medical officer of health for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch with Indigenous Services Canada - Alberta Region, Sarin addressed the importance of decolonizing to all people in health care, not only Indigenous people. Identifying as non-Indigenous, he provided examples of decolonizing strategies, such as shifting the power to Indigenous people when it comes to the collection, analysis and interpretation of health data for the Indigenous population.

“It’s important we listen to the Indigenous community,” says Sarin. “When local First Nations, Inuit or Métis governing bodies are in control of the information that is reported about and for Indigenous people, it’s a step towards shifting the power structure of health governance from the federal level to the local community level.”

 Richardson, a general internist from the University of Toronto and Anishinaabe, asked, “Can we ever actually decolonize?” This question resonated as recognition of the colonial legacy present in the institutions in which Canadians work and learn. She also spoke about the Joint Commitment to Action on Indigenous Health which provides 10 actionable items health-care education institutions should implement in admissions, the learning environment and curriculum to support Indigenous learners.

After hearing from the keynote speakers, attendees participated in group discussions to share ideas about cross-cultural learning opportunities. An emergent theme was the importance of integrated and continued training on topics of Indigenous health as well as anti-racism training for faculty, students and support staff. There was an identified need to consider admissions to our schools from a holistic view, recognizing and valuing the experiences that those from historically underrepresented populations bring to health-care professions.

“We need to be the change we want to see in the systems we work, learn and ultimately provide care in,” says event co-organizer Alya Heirali, a PhD student in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the CSM. “It was important to us to gather this community of people to engage in meaningful discussion and make a commitment to decolonizing in order to affect change within our health-care system and institutions.”

Attendees discussed how to create a more inclusive campus environment and health-care system.

Attendees discussed how to create a more inclusive campus environment and health-care system.

Arjun Maini, Class of 2021, Cumming School of Medicine

The event was funded by the Alberta Indigenous Mentorship in Health Innovation Network; Undergraduate Medical Education; Graduate Students' Association; Graduate Science Education; Office of Professionalism, Equity, and Diversity; The Calgary Foundation; Calgary Medical Students' Association; and Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement.

Learn more about how UCalgary is Indigenizing ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being through ii’ taa’poh’to’p, our Indigenous Strategy.