New centre dedicated to improving health-care for First Nation, Inuit, and Métis

First Nations

TORONTO — One of Canada’s leading teaching hospitals has launched an Indigenous-led centre dedicated to improving health-care services for First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities.

The initiative at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is called Shkaabe Makwa (pronounced SHKAW’-bay MUK’-wah), which is Anishinaabe for “Spirit Bear Helper.”

The centre opened Thursday with plans to meld Indigenous knowledge and traditions with medical research, training and healing models for caregivers serving Indigenous communities.

Senior director Renee Linklater said it’s all part of efforts to address system-wide disparities many First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples experience when they try to access medical care.

She recalled struggling to explain the importance of cultural traditions to government officials 20 years ago while trying to develop crisis support programs.

“It’s important for us to have programs like a drum circle for women, and they didn’t want to fund that,” Linklater said.

“I would have to work with them to help them understand that when women are in crisis they’ve often lost their voice, they have a hard time speaking and being able to name some of the stressors that they’re experiencing. So, when we have a drum circle with women, it helps them utilize their voice and find their way of being able to speak about their experience.”

She points to unique complexities around the opioid crisis, suicide, and trauma facing individuals and whole communities that can demand more nuanced approaches.

The initiative comes as alarming cases of racism in health settings continue to make headlines, including the recent death of Joyce Echaquan in a Quebec hospital where staff were caught on film insulting the Indigenous woman as she pleaded for help.

CAMH said Thursday in a release that it’s committed to placing Indigenous issues at the centre of everything it does — from clinical practice to research.

In 2016, the hospital opened a sweat lodge and in 2000 it opened a service dedicated to providing outpatient counselling to Indigenous patients.

On Thursday, CAMH said Shkaabe Makwa’s first medical director is Dr. James Makokis, a Plains Cree, two-spirit physician from Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta.

Makokis said in a release that he’s excited about the chance to focus on Indigenous ceremonies, medicine and thought, especially in developing new research that addresses Indigenous needs.

Linklater said culture is central to healing and wellness for many Indigenous people and that’s too often ignored.

She hopes Shkaabe Makwa will transform how the health-care system understands wellness, and expects benefits for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

“There are opportunities to look at the ways that Indigenous people heal and really look at some of our traditional practices and bring in medicines like the practice of smudging and cleansing and grounding,” she said, adding Shkaabe Makwa’s goals will likely grow and evolve.

“We see ourselves as facilitators, working with our community leaders and experts to be able to really identify these system’s needs.”

Similar issues are expected to be explored at next month’s Indigenous Health Conference, led through the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

Set to run online from Dec. 3 to 5, the event is slated to feature about 200 academic presentations on topics including cultural competency and safety, youth leadership, reconciliation in health care, racism/colonialism, and missing and murdered Indigenous women.