McMaster celebrates Indigenous Nurses Day 2019

Left to right: Amanda Snow, Danielle Bourque, Bernice Downey, Paul O’Byrne, Sandra Carroll, Juanita Rickard and Peter Schuler

“How do Indigenous nurses express our own Indigenous knowledge? How do we integrate it into our practice? How do we support our Indigenous nursing students in this work? How do Indigenous nurses capture the diversity of local Indigenous nursing knowledge in our clinical work? How can non- Indigenous leaders, allies and nurses support this work?”

These were some of the questions that panelists addressed at the Indigenous Nurses Day Celebration at McMaster University earlier this month.

These questions are important if we are to make progress on the health-related recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says Dr. Bernice Downey, assistant professor and Indigenous Health Initiative Lead in McMaster’s School of Nursing and the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioural Neuroscience. Downey hosted the event, which included the panel discussion (available live or via webinar), as well as presentations and speeches.

The panel included three Indigenous nurses: Juanita Rickard, vice-president of the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association and a community registered nurse in Moose Factory; Amanda Snow, a home and community care coordinator and supervisor of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation; and Danielle Bourque, a master’s student in the graduate nursing program at McMaster who also works as a part-time RN at the Juravinski Hospital.

Rickard spoke about the mission of the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association (CINA) and the urgent need to educate more Indigenous nurses to serve their own communities.

“I’ve always worked in Indigenous communities. Faces light up when I walk in and they see an Indigenous nurse.” Her own family, she said, has produced seven nurses, “but we need more. We need more professionals of all kinds. We lost so many opportunities because of the residential schools.”

She spoke about the need for university education that is locally based so that people don’t have to leave the land and their families behind.

Snow reflected on the difficulty of discussing spirituality and implementing it into health programming in her role as community care coordinator and supervisor. Being “inclusive, patient and safe” and “providing land-based programming” are also important.

Bourque spoke as a graduate student and researcher and as a “young nurse living in a really pivotal time.” She said that she expresses her Indigenous identity by bringing a relational way of life to her role and by remembering her people, her land, her Cree spirit and her ancestors when treating patients. “Non-Indigenous people need to make space and challenge policies. They need to support their Indigenous colleagues when they speak up.”

Downey discussed the need for non-Indigenous leadership in the university to work with Indigenous communities and Indigenous persons employed in the university to make the structural changes that are necessary to support students, faculty and health care.

“There is an urgent need for more full time Indigenous faculty. There are not enough of us to go around.” This is one of the challenges being addressed by the Indigenous health initiative Downey is leading.

On a personal level, Downey also related that, from her first job in nursing, in a hospital, she began her conversations with patients by asking them how their spirit was that day. It set up that relational dynamic which is so important. The practice helped her harmonize the Western model and her Indigenous identity.

Many barriers still exist though. “Often we are not allowed to introduce traditional healing into our work,” she noted, as nurses fear losing their licenses if they do. This needs to change, Downey says. “Nurses  are taking leadership in this area.”

Dr. Amy Montour, a graduate of the nursing and the medicine programs, spoke from the audience and shared her experiences as an Indigenous student in those programs, and her experiences as a physician and stressed the importance of listening to all voices. “We are trying to educate up. And we need to learn from everyone, not just physicians.”

Downey, Smith and Carroll
From left: Bernice Downey, Santee Smith and Sandra Carroll

Santee Smith was delighted to give her first public appearance as McMaster’s new chancellor at this event. “Today we honour Indigenous nursing scholarship and vital initiatives at the community level. You are brave and so needed,” she told the nurses.

Peter Schuler, an elder from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, opened the celebration with traditional prayers, a song and reflections about the spirit which flows through all nature and the importance of using both traditional and western medicines, saying, “I’d like to think we’re smart enough to use both.”

The celebration was also bookended with performances by singer/songwriter Semiah Smith, who shared songs of her own composition with the audience.

Other speakers at the event included:

  • Dr. Paul O’Bryne, dean of McMaster’s Faculty of Health Sciences
  • Mary-Ellen Fitzpatrick, full time professor of nursing at Conestoga College and member of the Indigenous SON Health Strategic Planning Committee
  • Sandra Carroll, vice-dean, Health Sciences and executive director, McMaster School of Nursing.

All expressed their ongoing support for the Indigenous health initiative and recognition of the leadership role that Indigenous nurses play.

The webinar is available here: Indigenous Nurses Day Webinar.

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