Statement on Orange Shirt Day/National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
Dear DLSPH Community,
Today has grave significance for our society, but also, I believe, for those of us who seek to improve public health and health systems.
For me, Orange Shirt Day and Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation bring sadness, as I consider the tragedy of residential schools; humility, as I remember that people in positions of expertise participated or turned a blind eye; and reflection.
One lesson I draw from the terrible legacy of residential schools involves the way authorities – including public health leaders – make decisions for Indigenous communities under the false assumption that they know better than the communities themselves.
Again and again in public health, we see that partnering with communities leads to the most effective and meaningful population health and the most sustainable and highest quality health systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that one-way communication and one-size implementation don’t take into consideration people’s lived experiences. As a result, they’re ineffective – or worse.
The lens of equity is a powerful driver of excellence in public health. During the pandemic, Prof. Suzanne Stewart, director of DLSPH’s Waakebiness Institute of Indigenous Health, demonstrated this concept brilliantly. She led a WBIIH team that partnered with Indigenous communities to offer culturally appropriate vaccination clinics run by trusted community members that included important spiritual ceremonies and taking the time to address each person’s questions. These clinics achieved high levels of COVID-19 immunization for Toronto’s Indigenous people while building trust in public health.
Meanwhile, DLSPH’s first Indigenous Health Lead, Prof. Angela Mashford-Pringle, implemented land-based learning at U of T’s Hart House Farm this summer with MPH students in Indigenous Health. She has worked with Indigenous faculty and staff at the University of Toronto-Mississauga campus to raise a tipi for learning and sharing. Recently, Prof. Mashford-Pringle partnered with Indigenous youth to re-establish sacred native plants along the McCaul St. side of the Health Sciences Building. The sweet grass, sumac and tobacco have been growing tall all summer, nourishing birds and insects. But the project also profoundly symbolizes a desire to uncover the injustices we have paved over – and bring back ways of knowing that will lead to a more equitable and sustainable future.
As a School, we must engage in learning and actions toward truth and reconciliation not just on one day, but all year round. In addition to the establishment of an Indigenous Health Lead, our School has provided funding for land-based courses and an Indigenous postdoctoral fellow program. I see these steps as a start
It’s important to make time for reflection today. I am attending U of T’s commemoration ceremony at Hart House this morning, and we are currently broadcasting the ceremony live on our website. On screens throughout DLSPH, we’re featuring a closed-caption video on the meaning of Orange Shirt Day in the words of Phyllis Webstad.
Finally, I would like to thank our DLSPH Indigenous community and the DLSPH Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, for organizing thoughtful opportunities for our community to learn about the history of residential schools this week.
Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown