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Confidence Building: Reconciliation and Indigenous Medical Experience

Unreserved is a CBC podcast and self-described “radiospace for Indigenous community, culture, and representation.” Its November 13, 2016 episode features interviews between host Rosanna Deerchild and individuals working in the healthcare, lifestyle, and wellness spaces. The focus of the interviews is the myriad ways Indigenous traditional knowledge (ITK) can be incorporated into western medicine, focusing a light on how ITK can work with western medicine to produce beneficial outcomes for patients, sometimes beyond what western medicine can achieve standing alone. This post briefly recaps and summarizes some of those interviews, focusing on those with Indigenous physician Dr. Marcia Anderson, Yuga studio operator Jade Harper, and Doula Melissa Brown.


Anderson: Bringing ITK to Modern Medicine


Dr. Marcia Anderson is an Indigenous medical doctor with roots from Norway House Cree Nation and Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. Dr. Anderson is the MD Section Head of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Health and Assistant Professor in Community Health Sciences with the University of Manitoba. She is known for being one of the first medical doctors to incorporate ITK into her medical practice to provide better treatment for her patients.

Dr. Marcia Anderson DeCotea of the University of Manitoba

As Anderson explains, she was first inspired to introduce ITK into her practice because of the racism that she herself faced in medical school, which reflects Indigenous peoples overall experience with the health care system. She sought to understand and confront racism by using ITK in her own practice, which she believed would help demonstrate its value outside of the western scientific and medical framework. Dr. Anderson explained that while some Indigenous practitioners utilize biological based ITK, such as plant-based medicine, she uses relationship-based ITK, otherwise known as Indigenous philosophical knowledge. This involves treating each patient with kindness, respect, and love, taking the time to get to know the patient and their parents, and making an effort to understand the patient’s unique cultural identity, history, and personal sensitivities. Ultimately, Anderson’s method of incorporating ITK into modern medicine is about building a relationship of deep personal trust with her patients to improve the quality of their care.


By taking this approach, Dr. Anderson has realized several benefits for her patients. First, she is better able to understand historical or contextual factors that may influence her patient’s physical or psychological health. For example, many of her patients have a history of residential school trauma, but in order for Dr. Anderson to understand precisely how that trauma influences the patient, she must first establish a relationship of trust. Many of her patients have experienced appalling levels of racism in the health care system in addition to the traumas of residential schools; having a doctor who can understand and relate to these challenges has enabled so many of Dr. Anderson’s patients to be candid with her about their healthcare challenges. Ultimately, Dr. Anderson has found that incorporating relationship-based ITK – or Indigenous philosophy – significantly improves the quality of healthcare and the patient’s overall experience with the healthcare system.


According to Dr. Anderson, other physicians are generally receptive to her approach, although she suspects that this has more to do with her status and reputation than a genuine understanding of its benefits. She suspects that many doctors do not believe in ITK because it does not have “scientific” backing or an empirical basis. Her response to these criticisms is twofold.


First, she notes that there is no harm in incorporating ITK into a medical practice. While her approach may not flow from peer-reviewed empirical study, it has proven effective (albeit anecdotally) with her patients, who have suffered no negative effects. Second, she argues that the critiques of her technique are themselves unfairly dismissive of ITK, which is sometimes only viewed as legitimate once western scientific knowledge has “validated” it. Dr. Anderson argues that ITK must be viewed and valued through its own lens, based on its qualitative impact on Indigenous healthcare and healthcare as a whole, and that overcoming these old ways of thinking is key to achieving true reconciliation and moving beyond the trauma of Canada’s residential schools.


Harper: Combining Indigenous Traditional Knowledge and Yoga

Jade Harper is an Indigenous business owner from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Ms. Harper owns and operates Spirit Fusion, which is a yoga studio that combines ITK with the Indian practice of yoga and meditation to enhance the experience and introduce ITK to non-Indigenous peoples. She initially came up with the idea after participating in multiple sweat lodges, recognizing that sweats and Indigenous spirituality could be related to hot yoga. Ms. Harper found, particularly, that the two practices could be related because with sweats, breathing is key to connecting with the earth, and in yoga it is key to meditating. By focusing on both, participants can significantly enhance both their spiritual and psychological experience.

Jade Harper of Spirit Fusion in Winnipeg.

To introduce ITK into her yoga practice, Ms. Harper often invites elders or other Indigenous community members to play the hand drum while she instructs her yoga class. She also focuses her spoken instructions on the 7 sacred teachings: love, humility, respect, courage, honesty, truth, and wisdom. By incorporating these teachings into the class’ opening meditation, Ms. Harper sets the class intention or theme, and in turn, claims that class participants are positively influenced. Ultimately, Ms. Harper finds that using the 7 sacred teachings helps to build strong relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants and to reconcile differing philosophical and cultural values. Ultimately, Ms. Harper believes that as long as the ITK and 7 sacred teachings are not used as a commodity but rather as a mechanism for creating positive outcomes and relationships, the broader Indigenous community will likely approve of her use of ITK in yoga. For her, the practice of integrating Indigenous and Indian cultural practices has become a means of preserving both cultures from assimilation after a long and devastating history of colonization.


Brown: Doulas – Helping introduce spiritual elements into childbirth

Melissa Brown is the project leader of the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative, which provides Indigenous women with spiritual and emotional support during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. Ms. Brown explains that Doulas go beyond midwifery to provide spiritual support, connecting Indigenous women to traditional knowledge through ceremonies, smudges, and other practices. It empowers women to connect with cultural practices and beliefs that existed before colonization because pregnant Indigenous women traditionally had helpers. The Initiative also conducts unique ceremonies involving the child’s entire family to ensure the child feels loved while building familial bonds. The ultimate goal of the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative is therefore to use ITK to strengthen the bonds between children and their families – especially the mother – in an effort to overcome the lasting impacts of colonization.

Ms. Brown was drawn to the project because, like many Indigenous women, she had a very bad experience with her first childbirth. In order to provide Doula services, achieve their broader goals, and improve women’s experiences, however, the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative have decided to utilize a train-the-trainer method. Through this method, the Initiative trains women to become Doulas, who then bring their newly acquired skills to their own communities to train other women. In this way, the Initiative hopes to target remote communities where many Indigenous women lack access to even the most basic resources to assist them physically, psychologically and spiritually during childbirth. Ultimately, the Initiative aims to create a broad cultural support network for Indigenous women across Manitoba to ensure they can feel comfortable and safe giving birth at home in their own communities.

Melissa Brown (centre from right) is the Project Leader of the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative

According to Ms. Brown, Indigenous communities and women have reacted very positively to the Initiative thus far. The issue that has challenged them is ensuring remote communities have access to Doulas, and they hope that the train-the-trainer method will enable them to overcome that challenge in the near future.



How These Initiatives Help the Process of Reconciliation

These interviews highlight two important and enduring lessons as Canada seeks reconciliation with its Indigenous peoples. First, the racism and antiquated attitudes that Dr. Anderson cite are far from isolated incidents, but rather reflect mainstream views across western societies, and not just within the medical profession. It is important for Canada and Canadians to recognize the value of ITK within its own lens, beyond what is formally recognized in Western patent law or by Western medical science. ITK is essential to culture and identity, and the impact of each of those markers on our health and wellbeing is so often misunderstood or minimized; Indigenous traditional knowledge highlights just how shortsighted this approach may be.


Second, ITK can be mobilized to build relationships between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. By exposing non-Indigenous peoples to Indigenous knowledge and teachings, we open new doors to understanding and mutual respect, especially when non-Indigenous peoples realize health and other benefits from practices they might otherwise dismiss out of hand. True reconciliation requires empathy and a shift in old perspectives; integrating Indigenous practices and teachings into Western medicine provides one way for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to do just that.

Jay Pelletier is a Research Assistant with ABS Canada. He is concurrently completing his Juris Doctor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law and Master of Arts at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. In 2015, Jay graduated from Lakehead University’s Faculty of Political Science with First Class Standing. He is a member of Fort William First Nation, and has previously worked in Indigenous community engagement and development.