Elder Charles Patton

By Matthew Brett

A recent retreat brought Indigenous community leaders together with McGill faculty members to dialogue about developing Indigenous health education at McGill for all future health care professionals.

The March 27 retreat was the first of its kind at McGill University with faculty members from the Faculties of Medicine and Dentistry as well as Schools of Social Work and Human Nutrition and the Office of the Provost. Representatives from the Kanien’kehá:ka, Inuit, Anishinabek, Cree, and Métis Nations were present.

Organized by the Indigenous Health Professions Program (IHPP), the aim of the retreat was to learn from and with Indigenous health professionals and administrators, Elders, traditional knowledge holders and Indigenous students to inform the IHPP and the university in shaping Indigenous health professions education at McGill.

“When we were first establishing the Indigenous Heath Professions Program, we wanted to increase the number of Indigenous doctors, but in speaking to our Indigenous communities we realized that we need more Indigenous people in all health care professions,” said IHPP Director, Dr. Kent Saylor.

A traditional opening and song were shared by Mohawk Elder Otsitsaken:ra (Charles Patton) followed by a welcoming circle. Retreat organizers then presented an overview of the IHPP and current Indigenous health professions curricula at McGill University. The retreat shifted to discussion about knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that graduates in health care should have in order to have a long-term impact on Indigenous health.

Retreat participants listened to an Indigenous health care student panel followed by an open discussion about what is working well in health professions education. Participants talked about changes that are needed at multiple levels to support Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners at McGill, and shared ideas to develop a curricular structure and content for Indigenous health.

Connecting education with community

Partnerships between Indigenous communities and health professions education providers need to be nurtured and maintained, retreat participants agreed. These partnerships help ensure that curricula meet community needs and ways of knowing.

“Can we bring the courses closer to the communities,” one community member asked.

Retreat participants embraced the diversity within and across Indigenous communities and stressed that generalizations need to be avoided. 

Brainstorming curricula and policy ideas

Also discussed were opportunities to embrace traditional and land-based learning opportunities, fieldwork internships, culturally meaningful student support and making education about Indigenous health part of the core curriculum in health-related professions.

Teaching needs to be critical and actively foster anti-oppressive knowledge, values and skills like humility and allyship. The history of colonization and its repercussions today—alongside the resiliency of Indigenous communities— needs to be understood by students and faculty alike.

“Don’t teach from a place of shame or guilt,” said Ben Geboe, member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and doctoral candidate in the School of Social Work,  who participated in the student panel. “Be open, welcoming and vulnerable…recognize that we are coming from a place of healing.”

Having an Elder-in-residence, mentorship, accessibility to information and resources while ensuring that Indigenous students have a choice of Indigenous contexts, rotations and projects for learning were among the suggested ways forward.

Wesley Cote, who is Anishinabe from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg and a resident in Family Medicine, said that experiencing belonging and safety at McGill means that Indigenous students are supported in “not forgetting who we are and what traditions we have.”

Faculty Development and administrative opportunities

Students emphasized the need for faculty development around Indigenous culture and health. Tangible suggestions about the admissions process and faculty development were shared along with administrative changes to engage more Indigenous vendors.

Challenges were identified on the administrative front ranging from the need to review equity in admissions processes to the importance of legitimate positions for Elders and knowledge-keepers–as-teachers.

Issues to address include a commitment from the university to include Indigenous voices in decision-making, dedicated space, experience on the land, faculty development and enhanced cultural safety.

Elder Louise McDonald provided closing remarks at the retreat.

“It’s time to move away from prescription and toward empowerment of our peoples,” said Elder McDonald. “It is a pivotal time in our history to hear our Indigenous voices with the climate crisis because there is a higher consciousness at work.”

It is necessary to work together for future generations, said Elder Patton, asking participants “what are we going to give our children?”

As a next step, the IHPP will collaborate with the Office of the Provost to initiate the development of an equitable and representative Indigenous Curriculum Advisory Committee.

View the retreat summary. Visit the IHPP website here.

June 5, 2019