Let’s move what we know forward

Reconciliation is defined in many sources as an act of healing through bringing parties together after adverse actions.

On Oct. 4, the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Western Law partnered to present an afternoon education session for students, focused on understanding Indigenous culture, health and law challenges in Canada.

Ry Moran, the Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, University of Manitoba, presented to more than 400 attendees. His keynote address delivered a powerful message on the impact of past legislative and judicial decisions and residential schools on the health of Indigenous people in Canada.

This presentation crystalized answers to questions I have pondered for years, spanning elementary and secondary school to my professional role as a paediatrician.

His session, and the small group blanket exercises that followed, were an initial response by our faculties to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. These recommendations charge law and medical educators to require students to understand the history and legacy of residential schools, treaties, loss of rights and attempted eradication of Indigenous culture causing adverse past and present Indigenous states of health and justice.

It is a small start on a necessary journey.

Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set the stage for a process of reconciliation for what he describes took more than seven generations to create, and will take many generations of determined work to restore what he calls a “balance to relationships.”

Sinclair speaks often to how the educational system was a key player in bringing us to this point in our country. He reaches out to educators to take the initiative to lead us to a new and better state in Canada.

This work will not be easy. The successes will be measured not in weeks or months, but through decades of action and collaboration. It is hoped educational efforts will empower future generations and they, in turn, will share in leading the way to a new and better future in Canada.

Moran’s masterful session weaved together the facts of past and present, helping illuminate how the adverse health and human rights outcomes for Indigenous peoples in Canada stem from decisions our government made and sanctioned. He highlighted the present-day inequities of health and bias faced by Indigenous people each day across Canada. His use of personal injustices, cited text and visual messages left a powerful impact on all.

The thoughtful presentation, which included video testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, illustrated how our nation attempted to extinguish centuries of values and tradition rich in healthy outcomes from generations of practices.

These actions, cited as traumatizing generations of Indigenous peoples through abuse, forced malnutrition and neglect in residential schools. These and other breaches of human rights in our country are evident in the lives of Indigenous peoples across Canada today.

Following Moran’s presentation, I participated in a small-group blanket exercise with students. This exercise is designed to paint a visual and verbal picture of what Indigenous life has been like in Canada during the past two centuries.

During the 90-minute exercise, I witnessed many participants opening their eyes and minds to some of Canada’s darkest moments. It was an experience I shared with them. And in our “sharing circle,” at the conclusion of the exercise, many voiced how Moran’s presentation and group exercise had moved them; opening new windows for change through better understanding the past.

During Thanksgiving weekend, I had time to reflect on the keynote presentation, blanket exercise, as well as my own experience as a student, physician and teacher.

The health, education and social outcomes for Indigenous peoples I have witnessed during my lifetime in eastern Canada and Ontario, and read in national media, now fit into a context leading to answers of truth rather than my uncertainty and biases in the past.

I took time to catch up on past journal reading and near the top was a national medical journal’s late August edition. The link to health outcomes, from the generations of residential schools and government policy as causation, was graphically reinforced in the Canadian Medical Association article, “Hunger was never absent:” How residential school diets shaped current patterns of diabetes among Indigenous peoples in Canada. This manuscript spoke to the purposeful starvation for food, culture, language and nurture using Canadian residential schools – leading to Indigenous scars of today.

This is not just an issue of historic note. The present lack of health and wellbeing for Indigenous peoples in Canada remains a serious, urgent issue with unacceptable outcomes in lifespan, disease, wellness and access to food, water, living and education. We can and must do better.

All Canadians face large tasks correcting these wrongs. We, as educators, envision making a new priority for future leaders, entrusted to empower through knowledge. As a school of medicine and dentistry, we have a role to play as we train future physicians to be compassionate and thoughtful health-care providers. I realize this educational session was just one step on a journey to a better future through demonstrable actions in our culture and practices.

We are at a tipping point as a nation as we approach reconciliation. I trust our actions will slowly turn the tide engulfing us. I am confident our future professionals will not make the mistakes of the past and opt instead for choices leading to an equal and proud future.

Reconciliation is a call we all must answer. All who live in Canada must enjoy the same individual health, education, rights and values. Through educational leadership and new partnerships, we must support and learn from, and with, Indigenous peoples in order that all become stronger and free.

Dr. Gary Tithecott is Associate Dean (Undergraduate Medical Education) at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.