Healthy Living in the North

Language leads the way to an improved health care experience: New Gitxsan phrasebook helps doctors and patients communicate

A person's legs are in the foreground, wearing moccasins, and traditional leggings. More similarly dressed people are blurred in the background.

Photo: Nathan Combs, Wolf & Water Photography & Creative Framing

This article first appeared in Northern Health – Health and Wellness in the North, Summer 2019.

Think back to your last visit to your family doctor – did someone greet you in your own language? If you couldn’t easily talk with the doctor, how would you have felt?

Language doesn’t just help us communicate; it’s how we create cultural history, traditions, and memories.

In 2015, Northern Health signed a commitment to help everyone feel respected and safe when they interact with the health care system. Having good access to health care is important, but so is having a positive experience, and hearing your own language is an important part of this.

A page of the phrasebook teaches readers words for parts of the hand on the top, and has a picture of a woman on the bottom.

A page from the booklet; Nikat’een is one of the Elders who provided input.

Recognizing this, Northern Health’s Northwest East (Smithers and area) Indigenous Health Improvement Committee released the Gitxsan Phrasebook for Health Care Providers in 2017. The project tried to answer the question, “How can Hazelton make health care more accessible for the local Indigenous population?”

The same team has now released a follow up booklet with specific health care phrases in Gitxsan, plus common symptoms and names of body parts.

“More than anything, the resource was created to teach people who don’t speak Gitxsan some basic phrases and help them communicate with native speakers,” says Angie Combs (Wii Sim Ts’aan) who helped organize both projects. Combs is an Aboriginal Patient Liaison at Wrinch Memorial Hospital in Hazelton.

She says the process started with a few people interested in learning the language and grew from there.

Creating the two volumes wasn’t easy: Gitxsan is considered an endangered language, with only about 1,000 speakers left.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Combs met with local Elders and Knowledge Holders (many of whom are featured in the booklet) to collect words and phrases, and to gain insights on how health care can be improved from the Indigenous perspective.

A man and three women all display the new phrasebook.

Staff at Wrinch Memorial Hospital are happy to have this new resource. (Left to right: Doug Eftoda, Maintenance Manager; Linda Bonnefoy, Lifeskills Worker; Maureen den Toom, Manager, Patient Care Services; Jessica McFaul, Administrative Assistant)

Combs notes that while many community members can understand English, hearing your doctor say something as simple as “Hindahl wila win?” (“How are you?”) in Gitxsan “really makes you feel good.”

Combs and the Northwest East Indigenous Health Improvement Committee have given the booklet to health care providers at Wrinch Memorial Hospital to honour and support their ongoing commitment to cultural safety for everyone in the community. The booklet is pocket-sized, making it easy for doctors to use when talking to their patients.

To help non-Gitxsan-speakers feel more confident, the booklet spells out words and phrases phonetically alongside their English translations.

As well, Hazelton health care facilities will soon display posters featuring Gitxsan health care phrases. You can also get digital copies of the phrase book through Northern Health’s Indigenous Health website.

Shelby Petersen

About Shelby Petersen

Shelby is the Web Services Coordinator with Indigenous Health. Shelby has over five years of experience working in content development and digital marketing. After graduating with a degree in Political Science from UNBC, Shelby moved to Vancouver where she pursued a career in digital marketing. Most recently, Shelby was the Senior Content Developer and Project Manager with a digital advertising agency in Vancouver, British Columbia. Born and raised in Prince George, Shelby is thrilled to be back in the community and spending time outside enjoying everything that the North has to offer.

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Aboriginal/Indigenous Health Improvement Committees: what are they and how do they impact health care in the North?

The Local Cultural Guide guide is pictured. The cover features a stunning image of a totem, as well as a wood building with Indigenous art on it.

The Local Cultural Resources Guide, created by the A/IHICs, supports health practitioners’ understanding of Indigenous community cultures, histories, and contexts.

Aboriginal/Indigenous Health Improvement Committees (A/IHICs) are action oriented groups of people who work together to support health and wellness for Indigenous people, families, and communities in Northern BC.

The A/IHICs began in 2005 and there are now eight across the Northern Health (NH) region:

NH is committed to partnering with Indigenous peoples and communities, and to building a health care system that honours diversity and provides culturally safe services.

The A/IHICs are made up of many different types of people, including local representation from Indigenous communities and organizations, the First Nations Health Authority, Northern Health, and other sectors.

A/IHICs provide opportunities for new connections and stronger relationships and cultural understandings between diverse communities and sectors working for the health and well-being of Indigenous people and communities.

The members of each A/IHIC bring perspectives and experiences from people who live in their communities and access health care. Through the A/IHICs, Indigenous peoples’ perspectives inform local priorities and solutions!

The work of the A/IHICs is driven by three key questions:

  1. If I was a new practitioner coming to your community, what would you like me to know about you so that I could serve you better?
  2. What is it that you need to know so that you can be the best practitioner that you can be?
  3. What is it that we need to know to be the very best partner that we can be to communities and other organizations?

The A/IHICs operate with the principle that Indigenous health is holistic and seeks balance. At the heart of this view is an understanding that all things – land, water, air, animals, individuals, families, and communities – are connected and in relation to one another. Holistic health is a process that demands a broad and inclusive perspective for addressing health issues.

Over the years, the A/IHICs have undertaken many different projects, including mapping patient journeys across Northern BC. Patient journey and process maps are an opportunity for communities to bring their voice into the health care system and identify opportunities for change in health services, as well as to identity local solutions and concrete actions that can be taken at the local level. The gaps and challenges that were identified can be collaboratively addressed through local strategies and solutions.  If you want more information on this project, you can read the full Mapping Summary Report.

Each A/IHIC has also worked to create local cultural resources that support health practitioners’ understanding of Indigenous community cultures, histories, and contexts. Check out the Local Cultural Resources booklet (produced by NH’s Indigenous Health department) for more details.

Shelby Petersen

About Shelby Petersen

Shelby is the Web Services Coordinator with Indigenous Health. Shelby has over five years of experience working in content development and digital marketing. After graduating with a degree in Political Science from UNBC, Shelby moved to Vancouver where she pursued a career in digital marketing. Most recently, Shelby was the Senior Content Developer and Project Manager with a digital advertising agency in Vancouver, British Columbia. Born and raised in Prince George, Shelby is thrilled to be back in the community and spending time outside enjoying everything that the North has to offer.

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