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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Orange Shirt Day

Two women dressed in orange

Marking Orange Shirt Day in Kitsumkalum.

I was honoured to be invited to Kitsumkalum’s Orange Shirt Day by Charlene Webb, the community health director. Although I got to wear a beautiful locally designed orange shirt, enjoy yummy orange food, and visit with many people, this event has a sad undertone.

What is Orange Shirt Day?

September 29th is Orange Shirt Day – a day of remembrance and recognition of residential school survivors and those who did not survive.

It is a day each year to acknowledge the harm done by the residential school system to children’s self-esteem and well-being and to remember that every child matters. Orange Shirt Day grew out of Phyllis’ story. In 1973, when she was 6 years old, Phyllis attended the Mission school. On her first day of school, her clothes (including a special, brand new, shiny orange shirt) were taken from her and replaced with a uniform. Orange Shirt Day is an annual opportunity to engage in a discussion on all aspects of the residential school system.

Residential schools

September is when children go back to school and it is therefore timely to remember the Indigenous children in Canada who were taken from their families and travelled long distances to attend residential schools. Instead of being nurtured and supported, many suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse there.

Residential schools are a dark part of Canadian history that make me very sad. As a 6th generation Canadian white woman with First Nations children, I have struggled with this part of Canada’s history. I first learned about residential schools when I was pregnant with my first child. I was devastated that such a thing could happen. As a parent, I cannot imagine a more heart wrenching and devastating experience than having my children forcibly removed and taken far away where I cannot protect them or care for them.

Woman wearing "Every Child Matters" shirt

Orange Shirt Day is a day each year to acknowledge the harm done by the residential school system to children’s self-esteem and well-being and to remember that every child matters.

Learning more

As hard as it is, we need to acknowledge that this tragedy occurred and learn more about it so that it never happens again. I encourage you to explore several resources:

Cultural humility

Part of healing from this difficult history in Canada involves all of us developing our cultural humility – our ability to be respectful, self-aware, and lifelong learners when it comes to the experiences of others.

I encourage you to join me and participate in the First Nations Health Authority social media campaign to engage all of us in advancing cultural safety and humility in the health system. In my daily life, I strive to do my part to help create an environment in Northern Health where people feel safe from racism and discrimination. Make a pledge today and share it on social media. Together we can make a difference.

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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Diversity and culture: celebrating Two-Spirit people

Two eaglesWhen my aunt was born, the elders of my community knew that she was different from her siblings. They said, “take care of him, he is special.”

I knew about Two-Spirit people since I was little girl. My mother took me to my first Pride parade in Vancouver when I was 10. She didn’t explain anything about it other than that it was a Pride parade. I remember the colours, the music, and the number of happy, beautiful people dancing in the parade. My cousins, who were also there, didn’t understand it. They were my age, and being boys raised in a heteronormative home, the thought of boys being with other boys was “icky.” But I didn’t mind, I just seen love! I was more offended about how close-minded my cousins seemed to me. Looking back at it, my cousins and I grew up very differently. My parents were always open-minded, and raised me to be as well.

That’s why I feel so passionately about the inclusion, acknowledgement, and awareness of Two-Spirit people – not only in the LGBTQ family, but in the general public as well. Two-Spirit is a term that spans western categorizations of gender, sex, and sexuality, holding diverse cultural and individual meaning (see page 5 of Dr. Sarah Hunt’s publication). “2S” people are also a minority within an already marginalized group of peoples. The numbers of 2S people who face racial and sexual discrimination, violence, suicide, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS infection are gargantuan in comparison to their counterparts (page 15-17). This has been well-documented and summarized in the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health‘s recent literature review, An Introduction to the Health of Two-Spirit People: Historical, contemporary, and emergent issues.

Written by Dr. Sarah Hunt, the goal of the paper is to introduce the historical, contemporary and emergent issues related to Two-Spirit peoples’ health. The paper does what it is intended to do while explaining gender, sex, sexuality; defining Two-Spirit Indigeneity; and addressing the impact of colonialism on Two-Spirit people. While this may seem daunting, I assure you that Hunt lays out the issues solidly with clarity and ease. For me, the strength of the paper emanates from the sections Social Determinants of Health: Understanding the Colonial Context (section 3) and Resiliency and Resurgence of Two-Spirit Roles (section 6). Hunt weaves colonial history with the modern day issue of “systemic invisibility” (page 12) which 2S people feel in society as a result of this history.

As the opening of this blog indicates, the elders of my community knew about my aunt before she transitioned. They could tell she was an exceptional person from the day she was born. She struggled through her life quite a bit, overcoming a lot of prejudice, judgement, and violence as a First Nations person. When she decided to transition, it seemed that this adversity amplified. She is a human being with a big heart, and she seems more at peace with who she truly is, regardless of the hardships.

My hope is that we are able to come together and support one another regardless of issues or judgements – and this hope has grown from empathy for those who passed away and were wounded at the recent shootings in Orlando, in which 50 people at a gay nightclub were killed in a mass shooting, just because of who they were and are. In Prince George, the Northern Pride Society held a vigil on June 13, 2016, in memory of those who passed, were injured, and were affected by this shooting.

On the other side of the scale, people are buzzing about the upcoming Pride Parade taking place here in Prince George on July 9. Elsewhere in northern B.C., Quesnel Pride took place last month and Fort St. John had a Pride Walk just two weeks ago. In Dawson Creek, Pride is celebrated in October. Everywhere, these are days of celebration, solidarity, and pride for allies and the LGBTQ2S family. What is happening in your community?

There is also a new health resource for trans people in northern B.C. located in Prince George. If you or someone you know is looking for care or more information, please contact the Northern Transgender Health Clinic.

I strongly recommend reading the NCCAH report on Two-Spirit peoples’ health; it gives an amazing introduction to terminology and methods. The entire report is important not only to health professionals, but to everyone in society. Just because we don’t understand someone doesn’t mean we get to dehumanize them. Two-Spirit people, in my opinion, need society’s loving embrace to facilitate stronger ties between each of us as human beings. These relationships create better futures, opportunities, and qualities of life for all those involved.

Shalane Pauls

About Shalane Pauls

Shalane Pauls is the 2016 Aboriginal Health Summer Student Intern. She has an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and a minor in First Nations Studies. Recently, she was accepted to the Master’s Program in First Nations Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). Shalane is from the Tsimshian and Tahltan Nations and was raised in Terrace, where she completed her first two years at Northwest Community College before coming to UNBC. When not in the office, she enjoys beading, biking, and gardening. Shalane is passionate about Indigenous rights and issues, and enjoys bringing this enthusiasm to her work space.

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