When Vanessa Ambtman-Smith first arrived at Western, she recalls feeling “the gloom and doom of the statistics around Indigenous Peoples having the poorest health of any population in Canada.”
She credits professor and Canada Research Chair Chantelle Richmond for shifting her view and giving her hope.
“Dr. Richmond helped me see how Indigenous research can have impact and how I could contribute toward change,” she said.
With Richmond as her supervisor and mentor, Ambtman-Smith examined 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.
Now she hopes to share her scholarly experience and pay the mentorship she received from Richmond forward, joining Western July 1, as a professor in the Faculty of Social Science, cross-appointed to the department of geography and environment, and the Indigenous Studies program.
Ambtman-Smith (Niizhobinesiik, Thunderbird Clan), is of mixed Nêhiyaw-Métis ancestry and is from Treaty 6 Territory (Athabasca, AB). She is a PhD candidate within the Indigenous Health Lab, in the department of geography and environment, studying the impact of integrating traditional Indigenous practices into health care spaces.
Her academic work has been recognized through many awards, including scholarships from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, Vanier Canada and the Indigenous Mentorship Network. She also contributed to the Royal Society of Canada’s COVID-19 and Indigenous Health and Wellness: Our Strength is in our Stories report.
Drawing on decades of front-line work
Ambtman-Smith’s doctoral research on hospital spaces drew on her personal and professional experience.
“I’m someone who has spent two decades working in Indigenous health care. I’m applying what I learned out there, as a health leader,” she said. “I’m also someone who has faced some of the harms experienced by Indigenous people in hospitals.”
Ambtman-Smith works closely with Indigenous communities, who play a key role helping her define research questions, to ensure she doesn’t continue patterns of harmful research practices.
“I see people who are being researched as part of a process of a co-creation of knowledge. Through the relationship with the researched, it is not just an Indigenization of knowledge, but a de-colonization of research,” she said. “Having that strong partnership with community will have better results. The research will be more relevant, more impactful and the overall potential for harm decreases.”
A new focus on mental health
Her next research project will involve working with patients at a mental health institution. She will interview them about their experiences using land-based medicine and with traditional healing spaces in the hospital.
“Right now, people are scratching their heads on how to deal with the mental health crisis. A lot of the approach is focused on western medicine, or bio-medicine,” she said. “My research has shown we are missing an element of spiritual care and connections to the land as a source of mental health promotion. People aren’t flourishing in these clinical environments. They need access to the world. They need a land base, a way to feel human in these sterile environments.”
She said building healing environments that draw on Indigenous knowledge systems can help in individual health journeys. Improving health care and healing spaces are also important ways to support reconciliation.
Ambtman-Smith has been an active voice in the London community, working to address racism, diversity and inclusion, and as a member of former Mayor Matt Brown’s poverty panel.
This work adds to the unique perspective she will bring to the classroom as someone who has built relationships with Indigenous communities advocating for the inclusion of Indigenous practices within the health care system. She also believes her own experience as a graduate student at Western, working with other students as part of the Indigenous Health Lab provides great insight.
“I believe who I am and how I approach research matters,” said Ambtman-Smith. “I think that’s a compelling part of why I took this appointment and why I am located in geography and environment, and Indigenous Studies. I am committed to both of these areas.”
Through these experiences, she wants to help make significant and immediate change.
“My goal in life is to improve the reality of Indigenous people. The current conditions need to be improved,” she said. “People shouldn’t be facing exclusion, racism and even preventable death in a hospital. I don’t want to see my own children have to fight for their human rights in a hospital. Ultimately, I want to see that change in my lifetime.”
Heartened by change in the academy
As a student, Ambtman-Smith has seen significant change at Western supporting reconciliation, including the launch of the Office of Indigenous Initiatives, the appointment of a vice-provost and associate vice-president (Indigenous Initiatives) and support for Indigenous scholars and communities.
She will be one of four Indigenous faculty members in the department of geography and environment, making it the largest cluster of Indigenous scholars in the discipline in Canada.
“I’ve seen change in the Indigenization efforts at Western in the short time I’ve been here. That makes me hopeful this will be a good place to invest my energy and time,” she said. “I’ve had terrific support from people like Dr. Chantelle Richmond, who are leading the way, making the space and creating opportunities for students like me to be successful.”
-with files from Keri Ferguson, Western News