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.


One year later: the journey to create the UHNBC welcome sign and beyond

A picture of the welcome sign, which reads, "We welcome you to our traditional territory." The Lheidli T'enneh logo is in the bottom right. The image is of faceless-yet-friendly people, painted with bright, vibrant colours.

The Welcome Sign, first unveiled at UHNBC, recognizes and acknowledges that the hospital is on the traditional land of the Lheidli T’enneh, and welcomes people to it.

The winter of 2018 saw the unveiling of a special work of art that acknowledges the traditional territory of Lheidli T’enneh and welcomes Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to the University Hospital of Northern BC (UHNBC).

The vision for a welcome sign/art installation for UHNBC was born in 2015. UHNBC is located on Indian Reservation #1 (IR#1) and on the territory of the Lheidli T’enneh. So, it was decided that the sign should be an acknowledgement and welcoming to the Lheidli T’enneh territory, and that the sign would be in Carrier (the traditional language of the Lheidli T’enneh).

To begin this project, the PG and Area Aboriginal Health Improvement Committee (AHIC) created a sub-committee to lead and guide the project. With guidance from Lheidli T’enneh chief and council, the sub-committee began planning the steps to create an art installation that would be placed prominently in the hospital.

After a call for Indigenous artists was issued, Carla Joseph, a Métis artist, born in Prince George, with Cree roots in Green Lake, Saskatchewan, was selected to create the sign. Carla created the design with Darlene McIntosh and Mary Gouchie, two Lheidli T’enneh Elders.

“Painting the sign was a great opportunity for me,” says Carla. “I wanted to do a piece that represented community and family. [The people on the sign] have no faces to show that it can be anybody. Making time for each other is so very important. Being an artist, I know art can be healing and inspirational.”

The sign is intended to recognize and acknowledge Indigenous peoples in health care facilities and to acknowledge the traditional territory of the Lheidli T’enneh. It’s also an opportunity to offer a learning experience to non-Indigenous peoples entering the hospital.

The welcome sign was officially unveiled on February 23, 2018.

Over a year later, the sign has had a tremendous impact on patients and health care providers alike. Shortly after the unveiling, the PG and Area AHIC voted to purchase additional signs to be distributed in health care facilities across the city.

For patients who access multiple health care facilities in Prince George, the signs acknowledge Lheidli T’enneh territory, provide continuity, and prioritize cultural safety.

Here are some of the locations where you can find a welcome sign, along with community members’ thoughts about the impact they’ve had on each facility:

Positive Living North

“When I go to a location that has one of the welcome signs, I immediately feel more comfortable walking in as a stranger to provide presentations.” – Kyla Turner

The Welcome Sign hangs on a white wall that also features Northern BC locations written in an inter-linking pattern.

The Welcome Sign hangs at the BC Cancer Centre for the North.

BC Cancer Prince George Centre for the North

“The welcome sign helps to set the tone when you walk into the facility and shows that cultural safety is a priority. The sign also provides a sense of continuity of care as BC Cancer Centre is linked to the University Hospital of Northern BC, where the larger presentation of this artwork originates.” – Carolyn Jacob, practice leader, patient and family counselling, and Laura Nordin, Indigenous cancer care counsellor.

Aboriginal Housing Society

“The sign is a symbol of our relationship, acknowledging Lheidli T’enneh traditional territory, and that we are thankful as visitors that we can live in and do our work on Lheidli T’enneh territory.” – Christos Vardacostas

Two women are posing with the Welcome Sign.

Erin Anderlini and Maria Rossi pose with the welcome sign at Prince George Native Friendship Centre.

Prince George Native Friendship Centre

“This sign is very meaningful to us, as it represents our working relationship with Lheidli T’enneh, which, for me, has been fostered by being part of the AHIC.” – Erin Anderini

PG Divisions of Family Practice & Blue Pine Primary Health Care Clinic

“We have had many comments on how beautiful the ‘Welcome’ picture is. When I think of the meaning it brings to our clinic, the theme of beauty comes to mind. We are fortunate to walk on the land of the Lheidli T’enneh. The welcome is a reminder to be mindful and respectful of the people and land of this territory.” – Submitted as a group quote.

Foundry Prince George

“The sign speaks to the importance of holding, in the work that we do, the history of this community and honoring territory. It brings forward agendas that bring healing. There is also a continuity from the bigger sign in the hospital – and people recognize that.” – Toni Carlton

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.


National Indigenous Peoples Day events in Northern BC

A feather floats on calm water.

Indigenous Peoples Day is June 21!

June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day! Across the country, Canadians have the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples share many similarities, but they each have their own distinct heritage, language, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs.

June 21, the summer solstice, was chosen as National Indigenous Peoples Day in cooperation with Indigenous organizations and the Government of Canada. The date was specifically chosen because many Indigenous peoples and communities celebrate their culture and heritage on or near this day – significant because of the summer solstice and because it’s the longest day of the year!

Here in Northern BC, there is no shortage of events that you and your family can attend! From Beading and Bannock in Chetwynd to a Moose Calling Contest in Smithers, families can enjoy good food and fun events while celebrating contemporary and traditional Indigenous cultures.

Here’s a selection of events happening right here in the North!

Dawson Creek and District Hospital (2 pm-3 pm)

  • Traditional Pow Wow dancers (featuring tiny tots, youth, and adult dancers)
  • Rock painting with local Métis Artist, Wayne LaRiviere
  • Bannock

Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre Hall – Smithers (11 am-3:30 pm)

  • Soapberry whipping
  • Bannock demonstration
  • Children’s activities
  • Moose calling contest
  • Cedar weaving demonstrations
  • And more!

Chetwynd Hospital Board Room (10 am-12:30 pm)

  • Beading and Bannock with Geraldine Gauthier
  • Tea will be served

If you’re not sure where to find information on local Indigenous Peoples Day events in your area, check out this list of events on the Indigenous Health website! Be sure to use the hashtag #NIPDCanada to join in on the fun online and show just how excited you are!

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.


Celebrating Aboriginal Awareness Week and holistic approaches to health

seaweed, Aboriginal health, healthy eating

Seaweed is left in the sun and open air to dry (Kitkatla, 2011).

Aboriginal Awareness Week was introduced in 1992 as a week to acknowledge and celebrate Aboriginal peoples and the many Aboriginal cultures in Canada, including First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

In northern British Columbia, the landscape is home to many diverse Aboriginal peoples, territories, languages, and cultures. Across the north, approximately 18 per cent of the total population is Aboriginal. The majority of Aboriginal peoples in northern B.C. are First Nations (approximately 75 per cent), followed by Métis who make up approximately 22 per cent of the Aboriginal population. Less than one per cent is Inuit and approximately three per cent identify as other Aboriginal identity. The largest First Nations population is in the northwest and the largest Métis population is in the northeast.

In 2012, Northern Health invited First Nations and Aboriginal people and groups to participate in regional discussions about holistic health. From this, we learned about holistic health from a northern Indigenous perspective. For many Indigenous peoples, holistic health is based on a relational worldview. At the heart of this view is an understanding that all things are connected and in relationship to one another. Land, water, air, animals, individuals, families, and communities are all connected and related.

At the heart of holistic health is an understanding that all things are connected and in relationship to one another.

Cultural activities and teachings are an important part of holistic health; language is central. These activities and teachings affirm resilience and a sense of belonging to a collective culture and community. Collective activities provide opportunities for relationship building and learning. Individual actions to achieve holistic health include living a life based on relational values as well as actions that include respect for oneself and others.

To create a shared understanding of a holistic vision of wellness, the First Nations Health Authority has developed the First Nations Perspective on Wellness. To learn more, visit

Individual actions to achieve holistic health include living a life based on relational values as well as actions that include respect for oneself and others.

Northern Health is committed to partnering with First Nations and Aboriginal peoples and to building a health system that honours diversity and provides services in a culturally respectful manner. To learn more, visit: From there, you can access more information on holistic health in a Northern Health report called All That Heals: Discussions on holistic health in northern BC.

What are some ways you think your health is connected to other things?


The author would like to acknowledge Hilary McGregor, knowledge translation and community engagement lead, Aboriginal Health, Northern Health for her contributions to this blog post.

Margo Greenwood

About Margo Greenwood

Dr. Margo Greenwood is the Vice-President of Aboriginal Health at Northern Health. Margo is deeply invested in the health and well-being of Indigenous children, families and communities. As a mother of three, she is personally committed to the continued well-being of children and youth in Canada. Margo also has two big dogs that keep her active. She is a long-distance walker and has completed several half-marathon walks.


A Healthier You (May 2014)

A Healthier You, magazine, May 2014

A Healthier You (May 2014)

We are very proud to share with you our tenth edition of A Healthier You. Brought to you by Northern Health and Glacier Media, the magazine is produced four times a year. Articles are written by northerners for northerners and cover a broad range of topics. This issue looks holistically at your health and wellness and explores ways in which Aboriginal peoples view health and wellness.

Some of the great articles look at traditional foods for all, local cultural travel highlights, and the feature article on a First Nations perspective on wellness. We also give updates on recent events, including the 2014 All Native Basketball Tournament.

In addition to the Northern Health staff, we would like to thank Northern BC Tourism and the First Nations Health Authority for their contributions to this edition.

Read the magazine online!

Chelan Zirul

About Chelan Zirul

Chelan Zirul is the Regional Manager for Health Promotions and Community Engagement for Northern Health. As a graduate from UNBC, she did her Master's of Arts in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies. She explored regional development decision-making and is an advocate for policy that is appropriate for the needs of northerners. This, combined with her personal interest in health and wellness, drew her to work in health communications. Born in northern B.C., she takes advantage of the access to outdoor living. She enjoys hunting and exploring the backcountry with her dog and husband and enjoys finding ways to use local foods.


Healthy eating is more than just the food

Oolichan drying in the wind

Oolichan fish drying in the wind. Historically, oolichan, known as the candle fish, were prized for their oil and were one of the most valued trade items, and are a key component to traditional food.

Sometimes in the work I do, I never quite know what to expect or where I’ll end up. Last week I called Florence, one of the cultural community health representatives in the Nass Valley who is very passionate about her work caring for the elders and creating greater food security in her community. I wanted to know a little more about the oolichan fish run that is happening right about now and she offered to take me to some of the camps to see what it is all about for myself. I admit that I was super excited to go, but hesitated for a brief moment because I still remember the last time I went out with her; I fell in a bog while picking Tiim laxlax’u (aka Labrador tea). Still, eager for the opportunity to get away from my desk, I accepted her offer.

Usually the oolichan are ready for harvesting right after Hobiyee, the celebration of the Nisga’a New Year. The story of Hobiyee is that during the celebrations they look at the moon and if it is facing upwards, similar to the shape of the bowl of wooden spoon, called a Hoobix, it means there will be plenty of traditional foods available to the people in the Nass Valley.

Oolichan is important to the people of the Nass Valley because it’s the first fish to come after the long winter, which is a time when most of the food put by for the winter is almost gone. Oolichan then fills the gap as a source of food fish until the salmon and other fish, berries and wild game are available in the summer months. Oolichan is also preserved by drying in the sun and wind, smoking or rendering for grease.

Most of us know that access to traditional food increases food security in Aboriginal communities and contributes to the overall health of individuals, their families and the communities that they live in. This is true – traditional food is packed full of nutrition. These foods are key sources of protein, essential fatty acids, iron, calcium and vitamin D, zinc, fibre and antioxidants, all of which are known prevent chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, anemia, obesity, and, importantly, they are naturally low in salt, saturated fat and sugar.

But that’s not all of it. Satisfying immediate hunger needs and improving physical health is only part of it. The whole process of gathering, preserving and sharing the food is just as important because it contributes to spiritual and emotional well-being through the social and cultural connections that are strengthened through these traditions. In other words, traditional foods have both nutritional and cultural significance, and that’s what the oolichan run is all about. I saw this first-hand on my outing with Florence. The oolichan were not out yet, but there were men setting up the camps, where they will stay for the next two months harvesting the fish. They will then distribute the harvest to their various family networks that will process and preserve the fish and share it further within their communities. I know Florence will go down with her young grandchild and harvest and process some of her own and share it among the elders that she cares for.

I didn’t fall in a bog this time, but I did gain a greater perspective of food security in Aboriginal communities and saw how access to traditional foods improves health and well-being. How does healthy eating contribute to your overall health?

[Editor’s note:  This is a great example of what the key message “Healthy eating supports healthy individuals, families and communities” means to Beth. Tell us what it means to you! Visit our Picture YOU Healthy contest page for more details on your chance to win!]

Beth Evans

About Beth Evans

As a registered dietitian, Beth is dedicated to helping individuals, families and communities make the healthiest choices available to them, and enjoy eating well based on their unique realities and nutrition needs. Juggling work and a very busy family life, Beth is grateful for the time she spends with her family enjoying family meals, long walks and bike rides. She also loves the quiet times exploring in her garden, experimenting in the kitchen, and practicing yoga and meditation.


Getting your feet back on a natural path

Agnes picking berries

Agnes picking berries and enjoying nature near Prince George.

How often do you get back to nature? Returning to nature has therapeutic benefits for our health. Research shows access to nature is important to the healthy development of children and very important to the mental and physical health of adults. In many larger communities, people have difficulty finding places to enjoy time with nature, or perhaps they can’t afford the travel or the time to get away.

In northern B.C., we do have some advantages in this regard. Many of our communities are surrounded by nature’s majesty and accessing places to enjoy time in a natural environment is relatively easy. Even in our larger centres, getting to the river’s edge is often only a matter of a quick walk.

Aboriginal communities have many lessons to share about enjoying nature in ways that improve our health and well-being. Looking to the land as a guide and as a provider is still the backbone of Aboriginal culture. Many of our friends and colleagues who are of Aboriginal ancestry return to the land regularly. They also do this particularly in the late summer and early fall for berry picking, and for hunting and fishing. These expeditions don’t just feed the family of the hunter or gatherer, they feed many in the community, as hunters will present parts of the hunt or of the catch to the Elders and other families in their communities.

A basket of berries.

Have you ever tried gathering berries near your community?

Berry picking is a bit back-breaking but really worth it. The skills to work with foods we have picked directly from the earth are dying out but many people, both Aboriginal and non–Aboriginal, female and male, carry on the traditions of processing and preserving food from the land for themselves. Berries are a great example of how, with labour on our part, the bounty of the earth can be transformed and feed our families: berries will reappear throughout the winter baked in pies, as jams, jellies and syrups or dried in baking and snacks. Frozen blueberries may show up in muffins or pancakes in January. The burst of tart sweetness will bring back the scent of summer in an instant. The brightness of the day you knelt among low bush blueberries, with the sun on your back and the sound of honey bees surrounding you will flood your memory and warm a cold winter’s day with the promise of summer. In fact, the berry’s life cycle is the story of a perfect circle of returning to the land and finding satisfaction, physically, emotionally and nutritionally.

The story the humble berry tells us is that the land can give us more than just food and can feed people in more ways than just physically. Nature can also feed our spirit and soul.

Where do you go to enjoy nature? What are your favourite pursuits outside of the city?  Let’s share our stories of how to enjoy nature in a healthy way.

[Editor’s note: Don’t forget to enter the Healthy Living Week 4 Challenge and tell us about how you source local food for your chance to win a great mini freezer!]

Agnes Snow

About Agnes Snow

Agnes is Northern Health’s regional director of Aboriginal health. She started her career in health as a licensed practical nurse in Vancouver, and then moved back to her home community of Canoe Creek where she worked as an additions counselor and then as an elected leader. Agnes originally came to Northern Health as a counselor and treatment therapist at the Nechako Treatment Centre, and then moved to Aboriginal health as the Community Engagement Coordinator, before taking on her current role.