Healthy Living in the North

Celebrating the unveiling of Gitxsan art at Wrinch Memorial Hospital

Curtain being pulled off of art piece.

Mary Vanstone and Chief George Gray unveiling the art.

This past fall, Mary Vanstone, local administrator for Wrinch Memorial Hospital in Hazelton, hosted an event celebrating the unveiling of Gitxsan art. Local Indigenous artwork in health care settings helps to create a more welcoming and culturally safe space. For many people at the event, the commissioning and unveiling of this artwork was more impactful than expected.

The artwork symbolizes robes of authority with a crest that depicts the Indian Residential School experience from the Gitxsan perspective. The Northwest East Aboriginal Health Improvement Committee commissioned the art for the hospital entrance as part of an initiative funded by Aboriginal Health to develop local cultural resources.

The art was made by residential school survivors participating in the Gitxsan Health Society Indian Residential School Resolution Health Support Program. At the unveiling event, several people who participated in its creation spoke about its meaning and their experiences working on it. Indian Residential School Resolution Health Support Worker Pamela Torres described the sessions where Indian Residential School survivors and family members from Kispiox, Sikedakh, and Gitanmaax came together, shared their stories, experiences, tears, and laughter as they worked to complete the beautiful artwork.

Also at the event, fellow support worker Gary Patsey described his experiences as an Indian Residential School survivor. He spoke about specific statistics of residential school impacts on the Gitxsan Huwilp and shared sensitive insights into his journey of healing. He challenged service providers to educate themselves on the 94 Calls to Action flowing from the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Ardythe Wilson, manager of the support program, concluded the event with a reminder that all health care workers and service providers in the area are in positions where they can become partners of true reconciliation by working with, and supporting, the Gitxsan in developing a reconciliation model. The unveiling was a significant event and those in attendance were visibly moved.

The art was designed by Michelle Stoney, whose grandparents survived residential school and now actively promote Gitxsan history and culture. The crest represents the four clans of the Gitxsan Huwilp inside a mother and child, portraying the matrilineal foundation of the Gitxsan Nation. It recognizes those who suffered the abduction of their children and the intergenerational healing that continues to take place as a result of the long-reaching impacts of residential schools.

Vanstone shared:

It was an honour to help organize and be part of this event. The unveiling event provided an open forum for discussion and a step toward healing from the atrocities of the residential school system and the trauma sustained by First Nations in this community. As a health facility supporting the people of this community, we acknowledge that we have a lot of work left to do, however, we are confident in the collaborative relationships we are building with our community partners. The artwork hangs in our foyer as a symbolic reminder of the unbreakable bond between mother and child and the strength provided by the Wolf, Fireweed, Frog and Eagle clans of the Gitxsan people.

Verna Howard, Community Engagement Coordinator with the First Nations Health Authority, helped organize this event and said:

This event has made a big difference. It’s the first time we have seen our First Nations people and dancers involved in the hospital system. I could see on the elders’ faces the impact the cultural dance group and cultural recognition had, especially for those who reside there. The community members and residential school survivors, who have heard talk about reconciliation but have seen little action, saw this as a great step forward.

The event followed local Gitxsan protocols with Chief George Gray providing a formal welcome to the traditional Gitxsan territory and Elder Frances Sampson, opening the event with a prayer. Following the unveiling, there was a reception in the cafeteria where the Gitxsan Cultural dancers performed. Verna Howard and I spoke about the role of Aboriginal Health Improvement Committees and how Northern Health, First Nations Health Authority, and Indigenous communities and organizations are partnering to improve the health of Indigenous peoples in the north. Hereditary Chief Ray Jones, a residential school survivor, shared about the three constant companions in residential school: hunger, loneliness, and fear.

Cormac Hikisch, Health Services Administrator for the northwest area said,

I was grateful to be a part of this event – witnessing local residential school survivors share their stories and express appreciation for the button blanket as recognition of their suffering. It helped provide me with a better understanding of the real impacts to this tragic part of Canadian history, and more deeply realise the still current trauma that First Nations are working to move forward from.

This event was one step in Northern Health’s journey to honour and acknowledge local First Nations and making health care environments more culturally safe.

The women who created this blanket are Amanda Wesley, Theresa Stevens, Virginia Fowler, Rebecca Jagoda, Cindy Martin and Mae Martin with guidance from Marjorie Mowatt and Sadie Mowatt. Final touch-ups were provided by Lavender Macdonald.

Three women with button blankets.

Victoria Carter

About Victoria Carter

Victoria works in Northern Health's Aboriginal health program as the lead for engagement and integration. She is an adopted member of the Nisga’a nation and was given the name “Nox Aama Goot” which means “mother of good heart.” In her work she sees herself as an ally working together with Aboriginal people across the north to improve access to quality health care. She keeps herself well by honouring the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of her life through spending time with her friends and family, being in nature and working on her own personal growth.

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Sharing of cultural practices in health care transitions

“I can’t emphasize how important it is for health care professionals to take the lead in asking these questions (about cultural practices), in peeling back the layers of assumptions, and finding out specifically how we can assist and make any transition smoother. Things will go better if those questions are asked right away and then I’ve always found when that happens, those questions are met with relief almost and answers are immediate” -Coco Miller, Kitselas, Tsimshian Nation

Young boy carrying drum

A young drummer at a video launch event in Kitselas.

The Terrace/Kitimat and Area Aboriginal Health Improvement Committee (AHIC) is pleased to launch two videos that share information for health care providers about the Tsimshian, Tahltan, Haisla, Gitxsan, and Nisga’a peoples’ cultural practices and how they impact their health care needs.

In 2014-2016, Aboriginal Health provided financial support for each of the eight AHICs in the north to develop local cultural resources. Development of these resources was guided by the question: “If I were a new health care provider in Northern Health, what you would want me to know?”

The Terrace/Kitimat and Area AHIC produced the following videos which focus on cultural practices for important life transitions:

These videos cover important topics relevant for life events that often take place in the health system including:

  • the importance of families gathering and being together,
  • the cultural roles of the family,
  • the diversity of practices among families and Nations,
  • how Northern Health staff can support families and their cultural practices, and
  • the importance of communication between the patient/family and care providers.

“I think it’s very important to have family there and friends to be around us to support us, pray for us. They are there to feed us. Especially for the young ones to be there to witness what we have to go through during the time of a death. It’s very important for them to know how we feel and see the experience.” -Roberta Grant, Haisla Nation

Group of six adults with gift bags.

Celebrating the launch of the AHIC videos in Kitselas.

“The Grandmother comes to visit and is in the delivery room also. She will take the baby and examine the baby to look for any recognizable birth marks on the baby because, in our belief, our family comes back through reincarnation. An aunt of the father also needs to be in the delivery room because we have her role to be to cut the umbilical cord because this signifies their role as the father clan. The child is no longer just belonging to the mother’s family (the maternal family) but the child also belongs to the paternal family.” -Verna Howard, Gitxsan/Wet’suwet’en Nation

I encourage you to take a few minutes to watch these videos and share them with others. The information contained in these videos is an amazing gift from the Tsimshian, Tahltan, Haisla, Gitxsan and Nisǥa’a peoples.

I hope the videos inspire all of us to continue collaborating and learning and that you find them helpful in your life and your work.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more, I encourage you to contact Lloyd McDames, the Aboriginal Patient Liaison in Terrace.

Another way to develop your understanding of First Nations and Aboriginal peoples is the San’yas Indigenous Cultural Safety Training, an online course by the Provincial Health Services Authority.

Find more work done by the AHICs from across the north in this booklet of local cultural resources.

 

Cultural practices around birth

Cultural practices around illness and death

Jonathan Cooper

About Jonathan Cooper

Jonathan Cooper is the Health Service Administrator for Kitimat. His role includes many aspects of health care responsibilities for acute, complex care and community services in Kitimat. Jonathan has been in this role approaching 8 years, during which time he has been actively participating in many health committees, including the Terrace, Kitimat & Region Aboriginal Health Improvement Committee. Jonathan immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom where he worked for the National Health Service. Jonathan enjoys outdoor pursuits, cooking, reading, and spending time with his family and children.

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