Vanessa Ambtman-Smith was starting to lose hope when a Western professor opened her eyes to the power of academic research.
“I was feeling the gloom and doom of the stats around Indigenous Peoples having the poorest health of any population in Canada,” said the Geography PhD student. “(But professor) Chantelle Richmond helped me see how Indigenous research can be hopeful and helpful.
“This brought a positive shift in how I view myself in doing this work and how I can contribute.”
With Richmond as her supervisor and mentor, Ambtman-Smith is now examining Indigenous healing spaces within hospitals and how they contribute to culturally safe care and rebuild trust amongst Canada’s Indigenous population and the health-care system.
For her efforts, Ambtman-Smith was recently named the 2020 recipient of the Dr. Valio Markkanen Graduate Award of Excellence.
The Markkanen Awards are presented annually to an Indigenous undergraduate and graduate student from Main Campus based on academic excellence; contribution to Indigenous communities; and commitment to Western’s campus community through engagement outside of the classroom.
Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student Justine Fletcher was presented with the Markkanen Undergraduate Award. Fletcher, who identifies as Ojibway from Hiawatha First Nation, became “enthralled” with the idea of pursuing a career in medicine in the third grade, when a close friend was diagnosed with leukaemia.
“He had a wonderful team of doctors who had a profound impact on his life and overall recovery. I wanted to help patients and families like that and was especially determined given the disproportionately low number of Indigenous female physicians in our country.”
Once she completes her Doctor of Medicine next year, Fletcher will become the first Indigenous physician from her community.
Both recipients are grateful for the financial support and said the association with Markkanen is equally humbling.
“It is great to be recognized within an Indigenous context, but the highest praise comes in being recognized for my academic work,” said Ambtman-Smith, who identifies as Métis-Cree. “Dr. Markkanen’s legacy was about the special relationship he had with his patients. That means a lot. Like his, our work is about building positive relationships between patients and health practitioners.”
Ambtman-Smith has a nearly 20-year history as a health advocate, including having served as South West Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) Indigenous Health Lead, as provincial appointee to the London Police Services Board, a member of the Mayor’s Poverty Panel, and a Diversity and Inclusivity Champion for the City of London.
Her transition to academic work now allows her to study what she has lived, she explained.
Hospitals have a long and negative history with Indigenous Peoples, Ambtman-Smith said. “This is a paradox. People go to hospitals to get well, but for Indigenous People, they continue to be places of harm. Nothing has changed.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought a greater sense of urgency, with a call to action supporting the use of traditional medicine. Today, some health-care providers are creating spaces to meet the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of Indigenous patients.
“It’s about recreating spaces when we don’t have access to the traditional land base Indigenous Peoples have used to stay healthy for thousands of years,” Ambtman-Smith said.
“Within cities, within hospitals, and within universities, we’ve started to recreate spaces where we can provide Indigenous Peoples access to the land, knowledge-keepers and things that have been disrupted due to colonization and urban migration.”
One such site, and the focal point of Ambtman-Smith’s research, is the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, which incorporated a sweat lodge into its hospital.
“An operational sweat lodge on the grounds in downtown Toronto where Indigenous Peoples are actively using it as part of their treatment plan is so contradictory to traditional health-care institutions and their sterile biomedical environments. There’s not a lot of research in this area. We don’t know the results yet.”
By talking to care-givers, patients and studying the relationships to health, healing and reconciliation within that setting, Ambtman-Smith looks to advance models of care beyond the traditional view of health care.
“There are a lot of potential applications. It’s about being thoughtful about going deep into one environment, taking a basic understanding and working from there,” she said.
“I’m committed to this work. My hope is to build on it for the rest of my life.”