Roundtable to be held on September 25, from 4 to 6 p.m. at New Chancellor Day Hall, Room 202, 3644 Peel Street

On Monday, Sept. 25, from 4 to 6 p.m., McGill’s Josée Lavallée, Sarah Konwahahawi Rourke, and Amy Shawanda will take part in a roundtable discussion on the healthcare challenges faced by Indigenous people. Part of Indigenous Awareness Weeks, the conversation will focus on education and accountability in the context of systemic violence in healthcare. The panellists include:

Josée Lavallée is a Red River Michif woman and member of the Manitoba Métis Federation’s Bison Local. Lavallée joined the Ingram School of Nursing in May 2023 as the inaugural Director of the Office of Social Accountability in Nursing, and as a faculty lecturer in Indigenous Health.

Sarah Konwahahawi Rourke is Kanien’kehá:ka from Akwesasne. In 2022, she was appointed Director of the Indigenous Health Professions Program in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. She is also a faculty lecturer in the Department of Family Medicine.

Amy Shawanda is an Odawa Kwe who was born and raised in Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. She is assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine.  

Moderating the panel will be Prof. Celeste Pedri-Spade, Associate Provost (Indigenous Initiatives).

In advance of the Centering Indigenous Voices in Healthcare (Re)education roundtable, the Reporter spoke with the three panelists.

What are some of the major issues regarding health care facing Indigenous people today?

Josée Lavallée (JL): Colonial harm is perpetuated and sustained through our current healthcare system and healthcare education. Harm will continue to occur until we centre Indigenous voices, agency, and move away from deficits. Honouring community and personal strengths, and resistance is an importance part of this conversation.

Sarah Konwahahawi Rourke (SKR): From my experience, it is best to reframe the dialogue surrounding Indigenous health to move away from a disparity lens. I see Akwesasne and other Indigenous communities relying on their traditional teachings and practices more frequently. The movement towards merging Traditional health practices and Western methods is creating a common ground where Indigenous knowledge holders and health professionals can collaborate. Communities are re-establishing their connections with ancestral teachings to create spaces for healing.

Although the major issues regarding health care for Indigenous people continue to weigh heavy in the areas of lack of trust and accessibility; the community leadership on the ground is working tirelessly.  We must recognize this. We are living concurrently through contemporary colonialism while we heal from historical medical colonialism. Based on multiple incidents of systemic violence, Indigenous people do not want to engage with healthcare professionals. Within these systems, they are still met with stereotypes and microaggressions. The health professionals that are trusted are overwhelmed with the needs within communities. We will continue to put in the good work, to make change happen. We are planting seeds.

Amy Shawanda (AS): Some of the major issues include a lack of access to health services in rural and northern communities. This can include patients seeing a rotation of doctors, nurses, midwives, and dentists because doctors prefer to be in urban areas. In both urban and rural care, there is anti-Indigenous racism that is perpetuated by the stereotypes of healthcare professionals. There is a lack of cultural safety and cultural accountability within these systems, and this is the importance of medical professionals to be educated where they are obtaining their degrees. When one is learning about the anatomy and ethics they should be learning and unlearning colonialism.

Celeste Pedri-Spade said that one of the aspects of the roundtable that she finds particularly inspiring is that it consists of three “strong Indigenous women.” What is the significance of this?

AS: Breaking the patriarchy! Indigenous communities have been matrilineal or were viewed as equals in a semi-matrilineal society, that was until settlers appointed men in leadership roles and tried to silence women within our communities. Women are the cultural transmitters to the children in our communities. I feel empowered to be amongst some of the most brilliant and fortunate to be collaborating with them in various capacities.

SKR: As a Haudenosaunee woman from a matrilineal society, I feel at home in this circle. We are setting a precedence. The health industry has always been predominately male-centric. As we move forward, our voices will be heard. The voice of our communities and our families. We represent our ancestors, and we walk into spaces that weren’t meant for us.  Indigenous women carry a power that is rooted in the strength of our circles, we never walk alone. The significance is in our representation. We are showing young Indigenous women that they too can make systemic change on all levels. We are showing them that they are enough, based on their own definition of Indigenous success.

JL: A panel of Indigenous women is a powerful message in itself. I feel honoured to be on this panel.

The panel discussion will centre education and accountability in the context of systemic violence in health care. What are some of your key messages on this?

SKR: First, we are honoring Joyce Echaquan and her family. It has been three years since she has left this earth. We continue to work to create safe spaces in healthcare, in her honour and memory. We are carrying messages of healing and direct action within health education. Change begins at the source. Supporting Indigenous Health students and their classmates in their educational journey will bring best practices in the field. We are also recognizing the work that is in motion. It started before us and will continue long after we are gone. Our Indigenous circle is growing in numbers and in strength to meet the capacity needed for this important work.

JL: Everyone has a responsibility and role in disrupting systemic violence in healthcare. We must honour Indigenous voices and acknowledge the unique and distinct perspectives of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples. This also involves non-Indigenous folks to critically examine their personal understandings of health and healthcare and how this influences the way they teach, learn, and provide care.

AS: My key position that I carry is to educate and humble non-Indigenous peers because this is why there is so much systemic racism. Come and sit and let’s learn from each other. Together, we can make change but your intentions have to be in the right place and your actions have to match.

Is this event for healthcare professionals, or a more general audience? What do you hope people will take away from this event?

JL: Everyone encounters the healthcare system in one way or another and therefore, I believe this event is for all. My hope is that attendees can decentre their assumptions and biases and leave feeling motivated to actively participate in decolonizing our healthcare system and health care education.

AS: This can be for anybody who wants to learn from an anti-Indigenous framework.

SKR: I hope to create awareness and dialogue through this event. We want to promote collaboration, remove silos, and ensure our students are well-supported.

Learn more and register for the roundtable discussion.

Consult the Indigenous Awareness Weeks webpage for the full schedule of events