First Nations partner with U of A to ‘pave the way’ for more Indigenous doctors

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Six First Nations northeast of Edmonton have partnered with the University of Alberta to train more Indigenous doctors.

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During a virtual ceremony Wednesday, the university struck an agreement with Tribal Chiefs Ventures Inc., which represents Cold Lake, Frog Lake and Heart Lake First Nations, as well as Whitefish Lake First Nation No. 128 and the Beaver Lake and Kehewin Cree Nations, to recruit, retain and produce more Indigenous health-care practitioners.

Cameron Alexis, chief executive officer of Tribal Chiefs Ventures Inc., told ceremony attendants that First Nations need more than just physicians, but all types of medical professionals, such as dentists, nurses and psychologists to break down cultural and language barriers affecting Indigenous access to health care, especially elders for whom English is not a first language.

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“They’re not heard when they try to explain what their ailments are,” he said of those elders. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s very important to have our people working all-inclusive in the fields of medical science.”

The initiative will also help Indigenous youth see medical professions as viable career options, Alexis added.

“It allows us to drill down to the nations, upon successful completion of Grade 12, that this kind of career path is not impossible,” he said.

Brenda Hemmelgarn, dean of the university’s faculty of medicine and dentistry, said that students recruited and trained from First Nation communities are more likely to return to those communities and practice their professions.

“It’s not just about bringing them in and training them to be doctors,” she said. “It’s recruiting them from their home communities, it’s supporting them while they’re here, and then it’s helping them to transition back to practice in the various communities where they’re located.”

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The day also marks six years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released 94 calls to action that recommends measures for governments, organizations and all Canadians to redress the legacy of residential schools.

Bill Flanagan, the university’s president and vice-chancellor, said the partnership will honour several of the calls to action, such as increasing the number of Indigenous health-care providers, improving cultural sensitivity and anti-racism training for health-care workers, recognizing the value of traditional healing practices, and closing the gaps in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“We recognize that the University of Alberta has been part of historic systems that have created barriers to Indigenous health,” Flanagan said, “and we want to move forward by increasing the number of Indigenous doctors and other health-care professionals, as well as honouring and respecting traditional health knowledge.”

Recalling the barrier that curbed his own dream of working in health care, Frog Lake First Nations Chief Greg Desjarlais spoke from personal experience when telling ceremony attendants about the value of access to education, particularly for younger generations and the future of First Nations.

“I wanted to be a dentist, and I had given up a long time ago because I didn’t have the education — the math,” he said. “That’s where we have to push our children — our grandchildren — and we have to open these doors for them and pave the way for them.”

hissawi@postmedia.com

@hamdiissawi

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