Devon Bowyer: From the Bench to Indigenous Vaccine Clinics
“This is part of the reason you got into public health. You want to be there for people, especially those that are underrepresented or marginalized,” says Bowyer, who will run the campus clinic for DLSPH’s Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health (WBIIH) with community partners Na-Me-Res (Native Men’s Residence), Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto (SGMT), Well Living House, and Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health.
Bowyer started his undergraduate studies at the U of T Scarborough campus (UTSC) in International Development Studies and Health Studies. He met DLSPH Prof. Anne-Emanuelle Birn who broadened his horizons and encouraged Bowyer to look and focus on Indigenous health in Canada.
After graduation, he took a year off to figure out what he wanted to study. He met Associate Prof. Suzanne Sicchia who mentioned the early beginnings of WBIIH. He approached its director, Prof. Suzanne Stewart, about volunteer opportunities.
“I was helping out for events and drumming circles. Whenever they needed help, I offered. WBIIH felt like a very tight-knit community. I knew this was a place where I wanted to be and learn. I applied and I got in.”
For settlers, Indigenous health is supporting, not “saving”, Indigenous people, he says. Bowyer lives by that mantra. DLSPH Communications Officer Francoise Makanda recently spoke with Bowyer about his graduation and future plans.
Congratulations! How does it feel?
Obviously, it’s been a long two years, but I’m glad it happened. I’m glad I had a first-year in person. That first year gave me that grounding. I met a lot of great people, the networking that I made, with professors and other people was very valuable.
What’s next for you?
During my MPH degree, I worked closely with Dr. Suzanne Stewart on a number of community-based projects in Toronto and the GTA. Most recently, I participated in the WBIIH’s COVID-19 vaccine partnership with Na-Me-Res, UHN, and the Auduzhe Mino Nesewinong. I am very lucky that through this work, I secured a job as the Auduzhe Clinic’s Program Logistic Manager right after I graduated.
We’ve been doing clinics every Tuesday and Saturday and we’re vaccinating people from our priority population who identify as First Nations, Inuit, or Metis (FNIM), or close contacts within the same household.
So far, the experience has been great and I’m looking forward to being a part of a powwow vaccination clinic that the Auduzhe Clinic will be hosting in partnership with WBIIH and U of T at Varsity Stadium on June 19th 2021.
All of this came from me knowing Suzanne and being in the right place at the right time. I think it speaks to the power of Dalla Lana, its faculty, and its influence within the communities they work in.
How was it working at the clinics?
The clinics have been great so far. There’s a whole bunch of organizations involved and I help with the staffing, logistics and behind-the-scenes work.
At our first clinic, we had approximately 400 people vaccinated. Elder Clay Shirt from WBIIH was out front with Dr. Stewart’s kids who smudged folks as they walked into the vaccine clinic. WBIIH staff and students checked people in through the provincial data system.
It’s been such an eye-opening experience. This is what I envisioned myself doing when I thought about getting an MPH. I think public health research is great, but I missed in-person opportunities like this.
When you speak to some of the clients that come in, they’re so grateful. I was checking someone out from the provincial data system who just got their vaccine. They must have waited 15 minutes. I went up to her and said: “how are you feeling? You feeling good?’ She just said: “hey listen, this is the happiest moment that I’ve felt in years. You know, I’m high risk. I’ve never been so happy. It’s been such a scary year.”
Those are the moments that you live for, especially being in public health.
From your perspective, being surrounded by Indigenous folks and learning about their experience and health outcomes from an academic perspective, what did you take out of it?
Well, how much of it is not talked about right? Like this idea of people not being aware or purposely not acknowledging Canada’s colonial history. If you speak to anyone that is Indigenous, they’d say ‘I told you so. We’ve been saying this for years,’ but when you speak to people that are non-Indigenous they are blinded from the truth.
But then you think about the larger political issues, and you think, well, why aren’t Indigenous voices being heard? I want to see more spaces for Indigenous folks to come and speak. Dalla Lana is great, but we only have two full-time Indigenous professors that I’m aware of: Dr. Angela Mashford-Pringle and Dr. Suzanne Stewart.
I think we need to have more spaces for Indigenous profs and students to come and speak and share their mind.
The other big thing is culturally safe practices. How do we make things culturally safe for Indigenous folks, especially during COVID-19? Our Indigenous vaccination clinic tries to address these gaps.
What were you able to do in the program?
It was nice to get Indigenous perspectives and learnings. I was very lucky to learn on the land. I thought it was amazing. You’re not in your traditional classroom settings. I have noticed a bit of a teaching difference between being in my Indigenous MPH courses compared to other courses at DLSPH. It’s a tight-knit group within the Indigenous health courses. We follow cultural protocols, smudge and have a cultural prayer by an Indigenous Elder or Traditional Knowledge Keeper prior to every class.
There are more check-ins at the start and end of classes. And I also tried to incorporate it [check-ins] if I’m leading anything so I’ve learned lots.
If you were speaking to a student who is interested in the MPH in Indigenous Health, what would you say?
My first question to prospective applicants would be: why are you interested in the MPH in Indigenous Health program at DLSPH? This program is unique when compared to other MPH degrees at Dalla Lana and at different universities, as it asks students to challenge dominant Western-based public health discourse. The MPH-IH program focuses on Indigenous-based understandings of health, and more specifically looks at FNIM perspectives of healing and well-being. With this, I would tell interested applicants that students learn from Indigenous communities and are guided by Indigenous leadership and scholarship and that this is a highlight of the program. The teachings at WBIIH are grounded in respect, cultural safety, as well as reciprocity, so anyone that is interested in working side-by-side (and not on behalf of) Indigenous communities would enjoy the MPH-IH program at DLSPH.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.