Personal stories underscore Indigenous health symposium at U of T

August 21/2017

By Hannah James, Reporter, U of T News

Families grappling with intergenerational traumas resulting from the residential school system. Troubling experiences of homelessness. Distressing examples of racism in the health-care system.

Personal stories – some of which were extremely emotional – were shared at the inaugural Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health’s 2017 Summer Gathering, a symposium to discuss bringing Indigenous practices to health care in Canada.

Suzanne Stewart, director of Waakebiness-Bryce, said hearing these stories can profoundly impact how health-care workers deal with Indigenous patients and clients.

“When the audience hears the evidence embedded in someone’s personal narrative, they’re able to make more sense of it with their heart and their spirit – not at a cognitive level but at an emotional level,” Stewart said.

Steini Brown & Suzanne Stewart

Interim Dean Steini Brown and WBIIH Director Suzanne Stewart

The symposium was held last week at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, bringing together frontline workers, community members, policy makers, academic researchers and an Indigenous Elder to discuss topics such as chronic disease, mental health, housing and homelessness. Delegates included speakers from the City of Toronto, Cancer Care Ontario, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

Bob Sleeper, an Indigenous social worker who works in addiction prevention, harm reduction and housing and homelessness at St. Stephen’s Community House in Toronto, told the group he has firsthand experience with some of the challenges his clients face.

He said food security, access to Elders and culturally appropriate care are key to supporting Indigenous well-being around homelessness and housing issues.

Sleeper is part of Stewart’s research team at Waakebiness-Bryce. He is focusing on Indigenous peoples and their experience of death and dying – with a focus on Indigenous practices and knowledges.

That includes the concept of “death by colonial attrition.”

“It’s not just a physical death,” Sleeper said. “It’s the slow death of just being on the street, losing or missing cultural identity and knowledges, not being about to get enough food to eat, or safe shelter. It’s a death of the spirit.”

“We’re looking at how that affects individuals, and the community, family and the culture as a whole.”

Dr. Michael Anderson, of Mohawk and Scottish heritage, is a surgical oncologist and PhD student at Dalla Lana, studying palliative and end-of-life care for urban Indigenous peoples.

Speaking on a panel about chronic disease, Anderson said western medicine still dominates traditional Indigenous medicine because people often feel that a medical approach is not valid until there is evidence of a random controlled trial that is published in a medical journal. He spoke about examples of traditional medicines – such as acupuncture – that were not widely accepted in western medicine until they were considered “scientifically proven” in a western framework.

Anderson said in his work, he tries to draw on both western and traditional knowledges, but it’s often a challenge.

“It’s hard to walk in both worlds,” he said.

New research suggests palliative care patients live longer – even without treatments such as chemotherapy – when they have social supports, someone to talk with, Anderson said.

Stewart said it’s important for people who work in health care to understand that Indigenous health is not a specialized issue, but something that needs to be part of the fabric of the health-care system at all levels, for all people. Where the health-care system has failed, she said, there are often Indigenous knowledges that can provide solutions.

A report documenting the symposium’s discussions will be published and made available to the public some time this fall on the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute website. Stewart said the report is a way to keep the conversation going, and she’s already planning a winter gathering with a focus on international Indigenous health.

“I think it’s not so much to change minds because minds aren’t really what change the world,” Stewart said. “It’s to change people’s feelings and to change their behaviours, and I think we’re having that kind of impact.”