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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Fort Nelson HIV Awareness Week: using language to break down barriers

A table of HIV Awareness materials is pictured.

The table of materials at Fort Nelson’s HIV Awareness Week helps educate attendees.

Language is a powerful thing. It connects to who we are and how we see ourselves. So, when someone takes the time to reach out in your own language — instead of expecting you to understand theirs — it makes a difference.

For the past five years, the community of Fort Nelson has held an HIV Awareness Week. For the most recent one, held the week of April 29, 2019, they decided to mark the occasion by doing something special for the Indigenous members of their community.

Working together with the Fort Nelson Aboriginal Friendship Society, they translated their yearly presentation on HIV into Dené, the most prominent Indigenous language in the area.

“We had one or two Elders who teared up,” said Jennifer Riggs, Regulated Pharmacy Technician and the key organizer for the event. “They were so happy that we took the time — I don’t think it mattered what the conversation was about — but they were so happy that we did it in their language. They really appreciated that we made an effort.”

Fort Nelson, located in Northeastern BC, has a large Indigenous population: roughly 14% of the population identify as Indigenous.

“This event is important in Northern BC, especially in our very isolated towns,” says Jennifer. “Indigenous people have a higher prevalence of HIV … and they aren’t getting that information. We’re trying to bring people up to date.”

This lack of information was the reason Jennifer and her team put in the time and effort to translate the presentation. She wants to ensure that they aren’t left out of the conversation. She hopes to do even more next year by translating the presentation into another Indigenous language.

HIV isn’t something that people usually get excited about, but for Fort Nelson, the event has become something to look forward to. Jennifer estimates that attendance has quadrupled since the initial event five years ago. She hopes that with continued outreach to the Indigenous communities in the area, attendance will continue to grow.

“So many people attend and we’ve come full circle, from where people weren’t talking about sex, to now having condom races at the fire department! It’s becoming normal conversation.”

For Jennifer, this is what it’s all about: to make conversations about topics such as HIV, sex, sexual orientation, and addiction less painful for people to talk about, and to make them part of everyday conversation.

“I want it to be a regular thing. I want continual education and training available all the time. It shouldn’t be a big deal.”

Mark Hendricks

About Mark Hendricks

Mark is the Communications Advisor, Medical Affairs at Northern Health. He was raised in Prince George, and has earned degrees from UNBC (International Business) and Thompson Rivers University (Journalism). As a fan of Fall and Winter, the North suits him and he’s happy to be home in Prince George. When he's not working, Mark enjoys spending time with his wife, reading, playing games of all sorts, hiking, and a good cup (or five) of coffee.

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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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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.

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Northern Table: An Elder’s impact on community food security

Elder Semiguul sits on a boat, smiling at the camera.

Metlakalta Elder Semiguul (Fanny Nelson).

Not having enough food to eat affects one in six children living in Canada. This can impact a child’s physical, mental, and social health.

The effects of food insecurity on health

Household food insecurity” means not having access to food because of inadequate income, and it’s connected to negative health and well-being. Those who experience food insecurity are at an increased risk for health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, depression, and suicidal thoughts [1]. However, amidst these challenges, there are people who are making a difference in building community and household food security.

One Elder making a difference

Elder Semiguul (Fanny Nelson) is from Metlakatla, a First Nations community near Prince Rupert. Metlakatla’s population is about 80 people and it’s only accessible by boat or plane. Semiguul’s parents taught her how to harvest traditional foods (gathering seaweed, digging clams, and picking berries) as well as how to prepare them.

Today, Semiguul regularly takes family and community members with her when she goes harvesting. Back at home, she prepares these foods and teaches others how to prepare them too.

“I teach them to gather and put away enough food to last, so that they don’t have a tough time in the winter months,” says Semiguul.

Semiguul and another person are on a rock shore, looking for food. Semiguul is handing down a bucket.

Semiguul regularly takes family and community members with her when she harvests traditional foods.

Learning from our Elders

Elders have a lot to teach us about how to live off the land and waters, and about values such as generosity and caring for the environment. Reigniting harvesting strategies that have worked for millennia is called Indigenous food sovereignty. It’s an important part of ensuring community members have access to healthy foods that are sustainable and build community self-reliance (community food security).

First Nations traditional foods

First Nations traditional foods are nutritious and some have been used by Elders for generations.

“My mom told me that black currants would reduce a fever,” shares Semiguul. “I have put a spoon of black currant jam in water and it works. The fever goes down. I also gave seaweed daily to someone who had low iron and it helped.”

Respecting traditional territory and teachings

If you want to gather foods from the land, it’s important to speak with Elders or the local First Nation on whose traditional territory you are on, to learn about respectful food gathering practices. For example, Semiguul shares with children, “only take want you need to last from season to season. Break off the ends of the seaweed and leave it there as it is the seed for next year.”

More food security information

Here are some other programs that are building community food security in the region:

If you’d like to learn more about household food insecurity, take a look this three-part blog series on household food insecurity:

  1. What is household food insecurity?
  2. Food costing in BC
  3. A call to action

[1] PROOF food insecurity policy research.

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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Our People: Spotlight on Lyndsey Rhea, Aboriginal Patient Liaison

On a dirt road with a creek in the background, a man in a motorized wheelchair holds a beige horse. Lyndsey stands to their right.

Stan Boyd (left) from Nazko First Nation and Lyndsey Rhea (right).

Lyndsey Rhea is an Aboriginal Patient Liaison (APL) from Quesnel, BC. Her career as an APL started in 2010, when she began working at the University Hospital of Northern BC (UHNBC) in Prince George. In 2011, the same role opened up in her home town and she was quick to make the move to G.R. Baker Memorial Hospital in Quesnel, where she’s worked since May 2011.

Not sure what an APL is? Check out “What are APLs and what do they do?

Why did you choose your career?

I attended UNBC in Prince George and received a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work. I’ve always had an interest in medicine and, through a practicum placement in my fourth year, I learned about the APL role.

APLs have a unique role. We can act as a bridge for the medical system, Aboriginal patients, and communities. I’m passionate about Aboriginal health and making sure that patients receive high-quality, culturally safe care. The APL role combines medical, social work, and Aboriginal components into one job!

How did you end up at NH?

After my practicum placement, I worked as a casual Social Worker and APL in Prince GeorgeI’m from Quesnel, so I was very happy when the APL role came up [in Quesnel] and I was able to move back to my home community.

What would you say to anyone wanting to get into your kind of career?

It’s definitely a very rewarding career! Every day is different, which makes for an exciting and challenging job. I’m always learning something new, and have learned so much about local traditions and history from the Elders in my area. It’s also a good idea to look into volunteering opportunities that are in the field of your interest. Here in Quesnel, we have a Junior Volunteer Program that is a great way to get an understanding of what it might be like to work in a hospital.

Lyndsey Rhea sits at a desk at G.R. Baker Hospital.

Lyndsey Rhea at G.R. Baker Hospital.

What does a day in the life of an APL look like?

On a typical day, the first thing I do is go to our daily huddle on the inpatient unit. From there, I can plan my day. I would then see the patients who are in the hospital, help to support them throughout their stay, and help plan for their discharge.

I work in all areas of the hospital, including the emergency room, intensive care unit, acute care, psychiatry, and with residents in long-term care. I also work with clients in the community to help them navigate the health care system. This might include a home visit or attending a doctor’s appointment with a patient to help them advocate for their health care needs. Another big part of my job includes working with the First Nations Health Authority for things like patient travel, medical supplies and equipment, and prescription coverage.

I’m lucky to be able to work with our local communities and take part in events in both urban and community settings. Recently, I helped with an Equine Wellness event for youth in Nazko. I attend health fairs and other community events. I’ve found a huge benefit in getting to know community members outside of the hospital, so if they do need my services, I’m a familiar face.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being an APL?

The most rewarding part to me has been the relationships that I have built with Elders, patients, and local First Nations communities. I’ve been able to work with new moms having their first babies, Elders who are passing away, and everything in between. Accessing health care can be stressful and it is rewarding to know that I have been able to help patients go through the medical system easier.

What’s your favourite part about living where you do?

I like that Quesnel is such a close-knit community. We may lack resources compared to a larger centre, but the service providers in our community are able to work together to come up with creative ideas and solutions. Because Quesnel is a smaller community, I’m able to build relationships and connect with patients and clients in a way that is not possible in larger cities.

12 members of the G.R. Baker staff are wearing orange shirts in support of Orange Shirt Day.

Lyndsey and other G.R. Baker Hospital staff support Orange Shirt Day.

How can patients get a referral to work with an APL?

I have a very casual/informal referral process. Referrals come by phone. Patients are welcome to self refer, or I can get calls from doctors, nurses, First Nations health teams, or family members. Patients do not need to have a status card or be admitted to the hospital to use APL services.

What’s your favourite thing to do outside work?

Last summer, I started paddle boarding and can’t wait for the warmer weather so I can get out on the lake with friends. I also play the fiddle and enjoy doing that as often as I can.

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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What are Aboriginal Patient Liaisons and what do they do?

Lloyd McDames smiles at the camera. Text highlights what Llyod, an Aboriginal Patient Liason at Mills Memorial does and provides his phone number: 250-638-4085.

Llyod McDames is the APL for Terrace and Kitimat at Mills Memorial Hospital. The contact information for your community’s APL is available on the Indigenous Health website. It’s also on posters and screens at your local hospital.

Maybe you’ve seen their smiling faces on a TV screen at one of our hospitals or maybe you’ve heard the term “APL,” but you’re still not sure what exactly Aboriginal Patient Liaisons are, much less what they do. Let’s find out!

So, what are Aboriginal Patient Liaisons (APLs) and what do they do?

There are 10 APLs across the North. They work to make sure Indigenous patients, clients, residents, and their families have access to high quality, culturally safe care. They also help close gaps between Western and traditional medicine, ensuring a holistic health approach.

Lloyd McDames is the APL for Mills Memorial Hospital, which serves communities in and around the Terrace and Kitimat areas. In Lloyd’s role, no two days are the same.

“When I reflect on my role as an APL at Mills Memorial Hospital I find my role is that of: a travel coordinator, a comforter, a family researcher, a cultural awareness educator, a support person, an advocate, an outreach worker, a facilitator, a mediator, a problem solver, a community liaison, a social worker, and my favourite: a telephone-tag player,” says Lloyd.

Lloyd and the other APLs across the region work with a diverse group of community members and health care providers. They must learn to adapt quickly to make sure each unique individual receives culturally safe care.

Northern Health created the APL program because we are committed to:

  • Partnering with Indigenous peoples.
  • Building a health care system that honours diversity and provides services in a culturally relevant manner.

The program runs in partnership with community agencies in Prince George and Smithers (Carrier Sekani Family Services and the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre Society respectively).

Northern Health’s Indigenous Health team supports the APL program by:

  • Providing training opportunities and mentoring.
  • Supporting a community of practice.
  • Developing communications materials and resources.
  • Collaboratively planning, developing and evaluating the program.

What can an APL assist you with?

Indigenous health is holistic and seeks balance. 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. Holistic health is a process that demands a broad and inclusive perspective for addressing health issues.

Here are some of the ways that APLs can work to make sure your health care experience is holistic:

  • Arrange for translation services.
  • Help patients understand the health care process, procedures, and terminology.
  • Help to ensure admission and discharge planning goes according to patient needs.
  • Assist with advanced health care planning.
  • Facilitate communication and cultural understanding between patient and care providers.
  • Assist patient with end-of-life resources.
  • Coordinate spiritual/cultural advisors.
  • Support and comfort family and friends.
  • Assist with referrals within Northern Health and to community agencies.
  • Help link patients to non-insured health benefits.
  • Assist with transition to and within long-term care.

How can you get in contact with an APL in your community?

There are 10 APLs throughout Northern Health in the following communities:

Contact information for each area can be found on the Indigenous Health website. Patients are invited to reach out to their APL directly or ask their health care provider for a referral.

Whether you are a health care provider or a patient seeking care, the team of APLs is here for you.

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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“This is who I am:” Northern Health staff member Jessie King presents at international conference

Jessie King posing with a slide from her presentation.
Jessie King before presenting her PhD thesis in Toronto.

Jessie King presented her PhD thesis on November 10 as part of an event attended by 1,500 people from around the world.

The Prince George resident, a member of the Raven Clan of the Tsimshian First Nation, was attending the 11th annual Decolonizing Conference hosted by the Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

The conference, entitled “Dialoguing and Living Well Together: Decolonization and Insurgent Voices,” was at the University of Toronto, which is located on the traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat, Petun, Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River.

Decolonizing has been described as speaking out against and reframing “the ongoing colonialism and colonial mentalities that permeate education, media, government policies, and ‘commonsense’.”[1]

Jessie, who works in Northern Health’s Indigenous Health department as the Lead, Research & Community Engagement, entitled her thesis “Niit nüüyu gwa’a: Decolonizing and Deconstructing First Nations Identity.” The first part of the title is Sm’algyax for “This is who I am.” She chose this title to acknowledge the ten-year intensive exploration of her identity that has taught her to keep questioning and talking about Indigenous identities. For her identity, specifically, Jessie looks to her personal experiences growing up learning about her Tsimshian culture, social interactions that were both positive and negative, and the most recent and ongoing conflict with identity as defined within the Indian Act.  

A painting by Jessie King of a raven and an orange moon.
This painting by Jessie King representing the clan and identity that she shares with her boys was also used as a conceptual framework for her research.

Her work looks at how the social, personal, and legal components of First Nations identity influence how someone thinks of their identity. It’s important to discuss and interrogate the intersection of where these parts of First Nations identity interact and create conflict, not only for First Nations People, but equally for those who are curious to know more.

Jessie’s thesis, which she’ll formally defend early in 2019, discusses issues of identity in an Indigenous context. Some questions she examines include: “Does how you disclose your identity change based on different situations and your perceived level of safety?” and “What are the implications of status on your identity?”

Jessie built her thesis on a foundation of research that she carried out for her master’s degree. At that time, she talked to women who’d lost status by “marrying out” – in other words, by marrying a man without Status as defined in the Indian Act.

“This whole concept of status being based on your proximity to men with status is problematic,” Jessie says. “To have such an important part of your legal identity defined by the men in your life is difficult for me coming from a matrilineal society.” 

She continued the work into her PhD thesis partly at the urging of the women she spoke with, who she prefers to describe as “co-researchers,” rather than “research subjects.”

“Several of these women asked me to keep the conversation going and keep creating that space,” she says. “We’re moving forward together.”

In the course of the interviews, people would interpret their identities much more precisely, she says, because they were in that space.

A slide from Jessie King’s conference presentation.
A slide from Jessie King’s conference presentation sets out the research questions used in her thesis.

For her co-researchers, being part of Jessie’s research was a positive experience overall: “Just being here right now, this is healing” said one woman. It’s essential to create space for these conversations to happen in safe spaces without fearing what others will think of you based on where you are in your journey to understanding identity. Jessie’s work is about acknowledging where people are in their understanding and honouring their stories by privileging their voice.

“The intent was to open up that space,” said Jessie. “Not many people feel safe to talk about their identity in the open, because of judgments, misunderstanding, or how an interaction will change because someone finds out who you are.”

A concrete example of the contradictions inherent in Indigenous identity involves a specific spot where Jessie fishes with her family. Beyond a certain point on that river,four important men in Jessie’s life – her two sons, husband, and father – are not legally allowed to fish: her husband and father, because they are not Indigenous; and her two boys, because Jessie is unable to transmit her status to them after marrying their father. This is the current law according to the Indian Act: after two generations of “marrying out,” mothers lose the ability to transmit status to their children, and subsequently, membership to their ancestral communities.

Jessie and her mother, on the other hand, are free to fish and practice certain rights. Jessie notes that according to researcher Pam Palmater, this sort of restriction creates “a divide between different ways of knowing who we are — a divide between people.” It’s a divide she anticipates having to explain to her two young sons one day when their curiosity shifts to who they are and why it’s in conflict with a system that defines them differently from their Tsimshian mother and grandmother.

“It’s still something I struggle with, that divide within families,” Jessie says. “My boys will never be able to fish beyond that boundary. I do this work in preparation for explaining this to them when they’re old enough to ask.”

Jessie claims this is problematic “because the Indian Act has been conflated with personal identity, which it is not, but it does impact your idea of self when it is in conflict with who you are and who your family is.” She continues, “Be what you were meant to be and do what you were meant to do, not what the Indian Act determines!”

Jessie reports that her presentation was well received in Toronto, and that she found it valuable to share her thoughts and her research with people – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — from many different countries.


[1][https://intercontinentalcry.org/what-is-decolonization-and-why-does-it-matter/, accessed December 5, 2018

Anne Scott

About Anne Scott

Anne is a communications officer at Northern Health; she lives in Prince George with her husband Andrew Watkinson. Her current health goals are to do a pull-up and more than one consecutive “real” push-up. She also dreams of becoming a master’s level competitive sprinter and finding a publisher for her children’s book on colourblindness. Anne enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, reading, writing, sugar-free chocolate, and napping -- sometimes all on the same day!

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Foodie Friday: Living out your healthy cultural traditions

Culture is so important for health and wellness. It shapes how we define health and wellness and how we practice it.

As a society, health and wellness seem to be narrowly defined by weight. Health is much more than the physical parameter of weight, which is influenced by unrealistic beauty standards in Canada – it includes mental and emotional health. Sadly, when someone doesn’t fit the standard around weight, they may be treated in ways that harm their mental health. We need to stop blaming or shaming people for their weight or health issues. Most people who are overweight have tried very hard, often unsuccessfully, to lose weight—after all 95% of diets fail within 2 years. We are all built differently: healthy bodies exist in a variety of shapes and sizes. People of all sizes should be accepted and treated with respect. Our goal should therefore be supporting a healthy body image for all. I truly believe health is the responsibility of our society and communities. It’s about making the healthy choice the easy choice.

The holistic role of culture

Cultural traditions shared with me by my Indigenous colleagues are great examples of the holistic role culture plays in healthy eating, physical activity, healthy minds, and healthy relationships. Engaging in these activities supports individuals, families, and communities to be healthy in all aspects of their lives. Here are some activities that can be enjoyed in the summer months and, coupled with food preservation, can extend the health benefits throughout the year:

  • Berry picking with your friends and family
  • Salmon fishing
  • Gathering traditional plants and medicines
  • Seaweed gathering
  • Clam digging
  • Gathering herring
  • Hunting
  • Gardening

Here is what some of my colleagues shared:

“My family celebrates food and berry harvesting and preservation from the oolichan, the salmon, moose and bear.”

Lloyd McDames, the Aboriginal Patient Liaison in Terrace who is from the Kitselas First Nation

“As a whole, our community of ?Esdilagh First Nation comes together every year to a culture camp.  Our Chilcotin traditional healers come from neighbouring communities to our members. We have been bringing awareness to the community members about the traditional medicines and living off the land. The culture camp brings us together as a way of connecting to our community members so that we can all learn together as one and start living in a healthier way.”

-Thelma Stump, the Health and Wellness Manager for ?Esdilagh First Nation

Angie Combs, the Aboriginal Patient Liaison at Wrinch Memorial Hospital, picks Is (soapberries in Gitxsan). She said,

“I gather the berries in mid-June when they are green. I enjoy being active outdoors and find berry picking peaceful. It makes me happy because I know I will be preserving them and serving them in the middle of the winter for my friends and family. I look forward to the fun and laughter of when my family gathers to enjoy a bowl of freshly whipped Is.”

soapberry ice cream, woman preparing ice cream

Angie Combs whips up Yal Is for the residents at Wrinch Memorial Hospital.

Here is her recipe for Yal Is:

Yal Is (soapberry ice cream in Gitxsan) 

(serves 6- 8 people)

Ingredients:

  • 1 pint canned green soapberries (canned in water)
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1 very ripe banana
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar (or to taste)

Method:

  1. Put canned soapberries in a sieve. Crush berries.
  2. Strain through sieve to remove seeds, collecting the juice in a stainless steel or glass bowl.
  3. Add the water to the juice. Beat until frothy with electric beater.
  4. Add banana and continue to beat. Add sugar and continue to beat until stiff like stiff egg whites.
  5. Serve immediately and enjoy.

Note: the soapberries lose their volume quickly after mixing; however, all you need to do is mix it again with the beater until it forms firm peaks. Some berries used to be mixed by hand and some people still do this.

Want to learn more? Here are a couple of academic papers about Indigenous culture, body image, and traditional physical activity:

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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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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