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Meet DLSPH’s New Indigenous Health Lead

June 21/2021

Asst. Prof. Angela Mashford-Pringle, is DLSPH’s first-ever Indigenous Health Lead. She says her goals are “very simple”: “I want to create a safe and welcoming environment for Indigenous students, faculty, Elders and Knowledge Keepers and their guests.”

But arriving at cultural safety might not be so simple. It means unpacking and addressing a historical legacy of public health research, education and practice – much of it with roots in past DLSPH incarnations — that has been anything but safe and welcoming for generations of Indigenous people in Canada.

“As an Indigenous person, the very first time walked into the Health Science Building I felt sick, it’s so Colonial,” she says of the former Board of Education headquarters, with its older artwork depicting the European discovery of America.  “I want to see us create spaces where people feel like they belong, where they’re not worried about who’s going to say what. I think we’ve already started down that path, it’s just going to be more discussion, more education and concrete action for our students to feel safe.”

Mashford-Pringle took her own step toward Indigenizing the School’s space two summers ago when she led a group that installed an Indigenous medicine garden on the west garden bed in front of the building at 155 College Street. And she plans to be actively involved in upcoming plans to redesign DLSPH floors in the Health Science Building, the School’s home.

Along the way, Mashford-Pringle intends to consult closely with Indigenous communities.

“Everything I do, I want to make sure I’m listening to what the community wants, not what DLSPH and the University wants,” she says. “I want to make sure the community is heard. There’s lot of talk about how to incorporate Indigenous material into medical and nursing schools, occupational therapy, dietetics. But how do we include our community in those decisions and what does that look like?”

Mashford-Pringle earned her PhD from DLSPH in 2013, and returned a few years later as a researcher for Prof. Suzanne Stewart, director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health (WBIIH). The institute is home to Indigenous health education at DLSPH, and Mashford-Pringle now serves as its associate director and Program Director of the MPH-Indigenous Health.

Growing up in South Etobicoke, she never expected to become an academic.

“It was a very poor neighbourhood — everybody’s parents worked in factories or other blue-collar jobs,” recalls Mashford-Pringle. “I didn’t think I was ever going to university. I faced racism with my high-school guidance counselor who said I should just go back to the Reserve. I thought I was going to be a truck mechanic.”

After graduating high school at age 16, Mashford-Pringle took a year to travel alone across Canada. It opened her eyes to the poor treatment of Indigenous peoples, and how that treatment was hidden.

She began taking correspondence courses at Laurentian University, eventually transferring to U of T to study forensic science. She turned down an offer from Osgoode Hall Law School and worked for Health Canada in early childhood programs while earning a master’s in sociology and social justice from OISE. While there, she completed a study with Waabinong Aboriginal Head Start in Sault Ste. Marie which had a positive impact on parents’ health and education. Her supervisor encouraged Mashford-Pringle to continue for a PhD. In 2013, she became only the second Indigenous person to obtain a PhD from DLSPH, and the first Indigenous woman.

At DLSPH, Mashford-Pringle helped to start an Indigenous Health MPH program, became U of T’s first professor to offer land-based learning, and led the launch of the Turtle Island Journal of Indigenous Health. One of her first goals as Indigenous Health Lead is to help create a postdoctoral program for Indigenous Health. She has made a lot of change in a short time at DLSPH, and she has done it by leading in a non-hierarchical way – a skill that she attributes to her Indigenous knowledge.

“It’s harder to crush a circle than a square — it’s strong,” she says. “Nobody is above you, nobody’s below you. That’s why when I teach, I put chairs in a circle. I sit with my students because I’m learning too. My philosophy is that everybody is teaching and learning at all times. And we all need to continue to learn.”

Photo: Victoria Pringle/Styling: Frankie Pringle