Amanda Sauvé never had any questions.
“I love learning medicine. I knew since I was 6 that I was going to be a doctor. End of story. It was the only thing I talked about – it’s where I fit,” said the third-year Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student.
As a Métis medical student, Sauvé has established herself as a strong leader and advocate for Indigenous health. For those efforts, she was recently named one of 17 winners of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Award. The honour seals her place among the future leaders and innovators of health care in Canada.
Following the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers of Anishinaabe belief system – which call for humanity to treat one another with love, honesty, respect, truth, courage, wisdom and humility – Sauvé has never hesitated in “getting involved” where she feels she is needed.
Completing her Bachelor of Medical Sciences at Western, she is engaged locally, and nationally, as an executive member of various education committees, researching and introducing Indigenous voice and perspective into Canadian medical education. She has co-authored policy papers and position statements on Indigenous health, and is working to develop educational tools for teaching the social determinants of Indigenous health.
She has also established herself as a strong advocate for mental-health awareness.
Raised in Barrie, Ont., Sauvé helped implement the Stand Up for Health initiative into the medical curriculum at both Western and the University of Toronto. She is currently working to develop an Indigenous-specific version to educate on the unique determinants of Indigenous health.
In light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Calls to Action, this initiative is undertaken from a community-based perspective, partnering with First Nations and Métis communities, locally and provincially, to receive guidance and support, Sauvé said.
“The focus is on education and creating teaching tools to target the medical education curriculum for students and faculty,” said the 25-year-old.
As an executive member of Schulich’s Aboriginal Health Advocacy Group and the Local Officer of Indigenous Health on the school’s Global Health Committee, she has organized multiple talks by traditional medicine practitioners, elders, residential school survivors and Indigenous health leaders to speak to medical students at Schulich.
“We need to be covering more about Indigenous history,” Sauvé said. “As practitioners, we need to be more aware and educated about the history of Indigenous people, around colonization, residential school experiences and also how the funding system works for the health-care system (in this case federal, not provincial).
She continued, “We need to increase Indigenous self-identification and reintegration of Indigenous traditional values into the population. A lot of that was lost over time. We still don’t feel overly welcome and heard. How do we empower this community to pursue education, become leaders in their community and help their community thrive? That begins with mentorship and having them believe they can go to university. It’s a when you go, not if you go.”
She admitted the slow change continues to be disappointing, but sees improvements, including within Western’s Indigenous Strategic Plan.
Last month, Senators unanimously approved the Indigenous Strategic Plan. The plan now goes to the Board of Governors for approval. If OK’d by the Board, a Provost Task Force on the Implementation of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Recommendations and Indigenous Strategic Plan Goals and Priorities will be established to put the plan into action.
Sauvé also collaborated with students from five Canadian medical schools to co-author the Canadian Federation of Medical Student position paper Indigenous Peoples and Health in Canadian Undergraduate Medical Education, which came up with nine recommendations for faculty and curriculum development committees to consider when introducing Aboriginal health content. This paper serves as an introduction to incorporating Indigenous culture and ways of knowing into education, and as a blueprint on how to make improvements to Indigenous medical education streams in Canada.
“I am hoping my efforts in Indigenous health education and advocacy will narrow the health gap faced by this population by assisting my medical student peers to develop the competencies necessary to provide culturally safe care to Indigenous Peoples, as well as increasing Indigenous representation in health-care leadership,” Sauvé said.
“It needs to be part of the curriculum. They may know the basic epidemiology of disease that Indigenous populations may have – like heart disease, mental health or diabetes – but we’re not getting to the root of how to fix them when we’re just treating the diseases,” she added. “We are not empowering the community to revive and be interested in their health. We focus largely on physical health in Western medicine. From an Indigenous perspective, the focus is on the physical, spiritual, mental and emotional aspect of health – so we’re only looking at one part.”
A strong personal and family connection to addiction and mental health inspired Sauvé to develop a model for stigma reduction and student support for pre-clerkship medical students, already leading to multiple peer-led events on campus. The initiative invites students to share their mental-health narratives via an anonymous forum, at which point they are invited to partake in a peer-led support group. She has had positive student feedback with each new session.
“The advice you really take to heart is from the people in the same scenario,” said Sauvé, who suffered from an anxiety disorder in her first year of undergrad before seeking help. “I didn’t want to be ashamed of it. I was even told to keep it a secret. But why? I was succeeding in school and didn’t feel it would negatively affect me.
“I began with telling just a couple of friends. Each time I did, they opened up to me in return. I realized this was very prevalent. Medical students suffer from mental-health concerns at clinically diagnosable levels, with depression, anxiety, bipolar and other things. The thought was, by telling others, it would make you look weak and interfere with your professional standing and ability to get residency. So, they keep it a secret. Why aren’t we addressing this? Why aren’t we supporting each other? Why aren’t we talking about this? Why are we suffering alone?”
Through her continued advocacy work, Sauvé hopes to strengthen voices not heard and empower youth from Indigenous communities to utilize their innovative minds and become the drivers of reconciliation and the leaders of tomorrow.
“Medicine is a team sport. If you’re not all succeeding, then, to me, it’s not worth it. I am having so much fun, which is why I do it. I’m doing it because it makes me happy. I came to university to learn and to become an innovator. The opportunities we have as students, particularly medical students, are outrageous. There are so many things you can get involved with – and I’ve found mine.”