Sarah Konwahahawi Rourke, Ed. D, a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, recently took on the role of Director of the Indigenous Health Professions Program (IHPP) as well as Faculty Lecturer in the Department of Family Medicine. Prof. Rourke, who was encouraged to take on the role by her family doc and fellow Akwesasne community member Ojistoh Horn (who did her family med residency at McGill), shares her goals for the IHPP, the importance of fostering a trauma informed space for Indigenous learners and faculty, and what the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation means to her.

You began your mandate a few weeks ago. Can you share with us how it is going so far? First of all, I want to give honour and respect to [founding IHPP Director] Dr. Kent Saylor for the incredible work that he’s done. I’m so incredibly honoured and appreciative to be a part of this work that he has started with his counterparts. For him to work tirelessly to create this program for Indigenous students and to create these networks has really been groundbreaking and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. I’d also like to commend Alex [Allard-Gray, IHPP Program Manager] and Romina [Pace, IHPP Associate Director] for their dedication to the students and the program. They’re really just amazing. It is so gratifying to work with them – I could not do this without this well-established team.

Your background is mainly in education and community outreach, particularly working with Indigenous women’s groups and projects. How will this perspective inform your approach as Director of the IHPP? I carry all that work with me, being trauma informed and I meet people where they are, in a very safe manner. I am a person rooted in social justice and traditional teachings. I worked at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls [MMIWG]. I’m looking for actionable ways to root out systemic violence and I’m looking for progressive and positive momentum. So, for me to join the IHPP, where I’m working with faculty and students in a very good way, with a good mind, to create curriculum, to create positive relationships and build trust, is to build on the foundation of Dr Saylor and his counterparts.

As part of your new role, you will be developing and implementing an FMHS Indigenous Strategic Plan to support all prospective and current Indigenous students, faculty and staff. Have those reflections begun? Right now, I’m taking in all the things that I need to know from the Indigenous circle and I’m holding space for the people who are sharing the knowledge with me. The priority for our strategic planning is the safety and education of our students, the education and support of our professors and the relationship building and trust overall for everybody involved in the retention and support of those students. And bringing in our partners and our networks and bringing in more people to work at McGill who are Indigenous and want to support our circle and building that circle and strengthening it. Those are the things on my mind.

We are pulling together all the calls to action from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the calls to action in health and education from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as from Joyce’s Principle, Jordan’s Principle and Bill 96. We want to make sure that all our educators know the impact of these policies and legislation on Indigenous communities – which most Indigenous students already know. We’re going to use all that to frame the strategic plan.

Are there any immediate differences between the health care field and education that you’re noticing? Everything seems to be very black and white in medical language. Because I come from education, I’m trying to reframe and change from the dominant narrative of negative disparities in Indigenous populations – high rates of diabetes, high rates of alcoholism and X, Y and Z – to a space where the narrative is about our successes, our resilience and how we rose above despite all of that. I think changing that narrative is going to be helpful and more uplifting within the curriculum.

Can you tell us about some priority areas for Indigenous health professions students going forward? It’s really important to me to remove the pressure from Indigenous health students to have to share and teach in their Indigeneity when they go into a classroom. They’re asked, ‘Tell me what status is,’ or ‘What does it mean to grow up on the rez?’ Not every student grows up on the rez, and not every student knows what it means to be traditional. We’re not a monolith. It’s really stressful for a student to go into a classroom with those expectations on top of the expectations of just being a student – especially health professions students who are taking care of people who may live or die or have mental health issues.

It’s hard enough to leave community and to be there in a space that historically we weren’t allowed to be in. Academia has honestly been an uncomfortable space for Indigenous people historically because the foundation is based on the same colonial construct as residential schools. So, when Indigenous people come into the space, they may be automatically triggered because it brings back that intergenerational trauma. Then for them to be asked to teach about themselves is another trigger.

What can the IHPP do to help? I want us to help carry that load. It’s so very important for those students to have advocates and to know that they don’t have to be that voice in the class. That they can reach out to someone who will help build those relationships with professors in a positive way. There’s no negativity in it – everybody goes in with a good intent. We’re all learning together what is safe and and how we can be more trauma informed.

How can you support faculty members to become more trauma informed? I’m putting the pieces together that will strengthen the organization by filling in the gaps of the foundation, so that we can have long term sustainability. If any professor comes to us and says ‘I need support because I have Indigenous students who are struggling. Can you help me to have a good dialogue with my students?’ or ‘Can I refer my students to you so that they can get the support they need?,’ we will be able to say absolutely, ‘Yes, I can help you.’ Then we can remove the elephant in the room and combat all that in a good way so we can have those really honest dialogues.

This year we are observing the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. What does this day mean to you? Every day is a day of reconciliation for us as Indigenous people. I think of my aunts and uncles – I had four who went to Thomas Indian School [in New York State] – and it did do a lot to my family and to my community. So, when I think of reconciliation, I am grateful for the awareness and the education of the general population of Canada in understanding the treatment of Indigenous people. to learn about what really happened because there has been a silence on this not-so-historic issue. I hope there are rematriations (I don’t say repatriations because I’m a matrilineal community member and I believe that everything returns back to the mothers) when our babies are found and families are able to heal.


Sarah Konwahahawi Rourke appointed Director of the Indigenous Health Professions Program