Panel on cultural safety for Indigenous community members took audience on a personal journey through family stories, history and health care – on the long road towards reconciliation

A common thread in the presentations by Alex McComber, Glenda Sandy and Elaine Kilabuk, panellists at the special Bicentennial Holmes Lecture “Truth and Reconciliation in Practice,” was the importance of family and family stories when discussing the impact of colonial practices on Indigenous communities. The three speakers hail from Indigenous communities separated by hundreds of kilometres, with varied experiences and backgrounds, and all chose to share personal family stories, often painful ones, powerful testimonials to bring home the difficult truths that they said must be properly acknowledged before we are ready to begin a process of reconciliation. Nearly 300 audience members logged on for the virtual event organized by the Indigenous Health Professions Program (IHPP), which took place on November 2, 2021.

Calvin Jacobs, IHPP’s Elder-in-Residence and Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake, opened the event with the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen (“The Words Before All Else”), a traditional address at gatherings which brings everyone’s minds together as one. Elder Jacobs also shared his experiences of facilitating cultural sensitivity workshops with new staff at Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre, noting how essential it is for healthcare providers to understand the history and way of thinking of the communities in which they work.

The event was moderated by Richard Budgell, Inuk from Labrador and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine, whose opening remarks outlined the aims of the panel. “The definition of excellence has frequently been culturally exclusive and limited to Western pedagogy and traditions,” he said. “And so, in this Bicentennial year, we have decided to be more inclusive in our definition of excellence.”

“The definition of excellence has frequently been culturally exclusive and limited to Western pedagogy and traditions. And so, in this Bicentennial year, we have decided to be more inclusive in our definition of excellence.” – Richard Budgell

The first panellist, Alex McComber, Kanien’kehá:ka Bear Clan from Kahnawake Territory and Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine, spoke about the experiences of his parents with the health care system, illustrating how often the concerns and preferences of Indigenous elders are not heard in the rush to formulate a Western medicine treatment plan. Professor McComber’s emotional account of his mother Rita’s experiences as a cancer patient deeply touched the audience, many of whom thanked him for his openness. “Miigwech for sharing your story and your love for your parents,” said Cindy Peltier, Chair of Indigenous Education at Nipissing University’s Schulich School of Education, in the chat, in a sentiment shared by many.

On the day of the event, the second panellist, Glenda Sandy, a Naskapi-Cree nurse who is also an Indigenous Nursing Consultant for McGill’s Ingram School of Nursing, was in Northern Manitoba without decent internet (Professor Budgell pointed out that this is a common system issue in Indigenous communities), so she had to dial in to the event. Her pre-recorded presentation, called Taapwaaun Niistim (The Truth First), began with a short history of the Indian Act and residential schools and their assimilationist aim. Ms Sandy noted that several commissions and inquiries have since uncovered these truths to the wider public, but they have yet to be fully acknowledged by our society, including our health care institutions. “Unless that’s acknowledged, there can be no real change,” she said. Like Elder Jacobs, she urged health care professionals and researchers to take the time to recognize the strengths of the Indigenous communities in which they work, to acknowledge lived experience and to make space for knowledge keepers in academic settings. She ended her talk with a powerful visual: contrasting photos of her grandfather as a young unsmiling boy wearing a necktie at a residential school far away from his family and community, and her own son, at around the same age, living in his community and smiling after having trapped his first rabbit.

The final panellist, Dr. Elaine Kilabuk, an Inuk physician and McGill medical graduate, spoke from Iqaluit where she now practises, as well as Ottawa. Dr. Kilabuk interwove a narrative of family with the history of colonisation in the North and the impact of that history on the social determinants of health of the Nunavummiut today, including shocking rates of tuberculosis and other health issues. Like her fellow panellists, she emphasized the importance of educating Canadians about this history and have them acknowledge it in order to move toward reconciliation. We are not there yet, she explained, but rather are currently on a continuum that begins with cultural awareness, moves toward cultural sensitivity, then cultural competency and finally cultural safety.

A short question and answer period followed which included an examination of McGill’s role in making space for Indigenous knowledge within a Western academic setting that is not limited to traditional platforms like scholarly journals.

Elder Jacobs closed the event by separating the audience’s minds and sending them off to reflect on what they heard during the event. This reflective process was already well underway it seemed, judging from the very active chat during the event. “Thanks so much for this informative presentation on both the history and current context,” wrote Tina Gelsomini, Project Officer for the Ingram School of Nursing’s Strengths Based Nursing and Healthcare initiative. “You’ve given us so much to think about it.” Others echoed her sentiment, and also expressed shock and dismay at some of the grim stories and statistics presented; many expressed an interest to learn more.

“It was a fantastic event,” said Dr. David Eidelman, VP-Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, speaking after the event. “The presentations by Professor McComber, Ms. Sandy and Dr. Kilabuk were both moving and eye-opening, thanks in large part to their willingness to share their own stories, those of their families and their communities, combined with historical facts and scientific data.”

“I learnt a lot about the egregious health inequalities and inequities faced by Indigenous peoples,” he continued, “as well as Indigenous ways of understanding family relationships and illness. I am grateful to all the participants for taking the time to educate us about the past and the current context, which as they pointed out is the first step for all of us on the path towards creating culturally safe spaces for Indigenous community members – patients, colleagues, learners – within our institutions and society.”


Watch the full recording of Truth and Reconciliation in Practice here.

Learn more about the Indigenous Health Professions Program here.

The Indigenous Initiatives’ Resource Hub has a good bank of information about a variety of subjects related to Indigenous peoples.


26 November 2021