The 94 Calls to Action from the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission demand response and action from governments and institutions. Seven of these Calls to Action focus on Health and Healthcare issues. For those of us with the privilege to be involved in medical education, there is a particular focus on #23 and #24:

23. We call upon all levels of government to:

i. Increase the number of Aboriginal professionals working in the health-care field.

ii. Ensure the retention of Aboriginal health-care providers in Aboriginal communities.

iii. Provide cultural competency training for all healthcare professionals.

24. We call upon medical and nursing schools in Canada to require all students to take a course dealing with Aboriginal health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, and Indigenous teachings and practices. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.

Yes, an institutional response is required and is underway and has been and will be written about here and elsewhere. (In particular, look for future Education Team posts about curricular and teaching responses). But the Calls to Action also require a personal, individual response and this is, in some ways, harder.

I’ve been wrestling with my own response. Here’s some of that…

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Near the shore of Lake Ontario, Kingston. (Photo T. Suart, 2018)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings exposed events long ignored in mainstream history curricula. I prided myself on being a student of history, of recognizing the foibles of historical records – the victor writes the books – and yet I found myself saying over and over again: “How did I not know this?” How was this never a part of the quaint lessons about Indians in my Grade 3 Reader, nor in the more sophisticated history books at King’s and Dal? How is it I could be so oblivious?

At the same time, I wanted to distance myself from any responsibility for these historical wrongs. For example: I’ve been at events where people introduce themselves with descriptors, such as their clan or First Nation affiliation, or, for people like me using the term “Settler”. I’ve always bristled at this. I don’t self-identify as a “Settler.” For me, “settler” implies agency, suggests choice. What choice did I have about where I was born? Extending this further, my pre-Confederation poor Acadian and Irish ancestors in rural New Brunswick likely weren’t concerned with much beyond day-to-day survival, and I’m sure were good people, so, they’re not responsible either. Right?

But I did have a choice when I moved to Kingston in 2006: when I moved to these traditional lands of a different nation. I don’t even know the historical relationship, if any, between the Wolastqiyik (the preferred name of the people I grew up knowing as Maliseet) and the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee. I never even thought about it vis-à-vis my discomfort with “settler”.

During his recent three-day visit to Queen’s, sponsored by the Faculty of Health Sciences, Dr. Barry Lavallee, a member of Manitoba First Nation and Métis communities, and a family physician specializing in Indigenous health and northern practice, pointed out that we can’t accept the status quo. We must consider who supports our ignorance and for what purpose. We are also responsible to recognize what phenomena support our own positions of privilege and power. And what to do with that power.

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When I picked my Twitter handle in 2010, I wanted something unique – not @Theresa487 or something like that – and, wistfully, I wanted something that reminded me of home. I opted for the “original” Indigenous name of my New Brunswick hometown (the colonial-corrupted spelling, I later learned, but home nonetheless). So I became @Welamooktook. It reminded me of the place, the land, where I had roots, and family, and history.

But those same reasons I picked it became reasons to let it go. My original feelings and sentiments were sound, but I couldn’t escape the cultural appropriation, the feeling of wrongness it came to mean, as I reflected and wrestled with it.

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A year ago, as part of an Education course I was taking, my classmates and I were encouraged to go to an exhibition of Kent Monkman’s artwork at the Agnes Etherington Art Gallery, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience.

The entire installation was thought-provoking, emotional, and disturbing. One painting, in particular, haunted me: The Scream (2017). As I stood looking at this large painting depicting “the exact moment Indigenous children were taken from their parents”, I focused on three young people in the background, at the right, running away. Running away from the red-serge Mounties I had grown up looking up to. The trio running in the back are dressed in jeans and hoodies and look like teenagers I would see anywhere in Kingston.

They looked like my son.

This made it real for me. Made it close enough to touch. Close enough to imagine.

My son has a hoodie like that.

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The TRC demands a response but that response is not guilt – or denial. It’s self-reflection. And compassion. And empathy. And action.

It’s relinquishing a cherished Twitter handle because it’s the right thing to do.

It’s stumbling through a territory acknowledgement because I’m still getting my Maritime tongue around Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee when Wolastqiyik is easier. And trying to go beyond the scripted suggestion to address relationships, and thoughts about land and people.

It’s accepting the self-descriptor “descendant of settlers” because that’s accurate and real and it matters.

It’s working with my physician colleagues to ensure sound curricular and clinical experiences that, as Dr. Lavelle described, gives our students “the ability to treat the person in front of them based on their experiences without judgment.”

It’s wrestling with getting all of these meandering ideas and feelings into words to share in this blog, because we all need to be part of this conversation — all the while worrying it’s arrogant or insulting or inadequate.

In his workshop, Dr. Lavallee urged us to use reflection to address our response to new information. And he challenged us: “When you feel the discomfort, move into it, because that’s where the learning occurs.” 

We tell our students to ask questions and then listen: Patients have the information and will share it. I learned the same in my previous career as a journalist. Ask questions, but most importantly listen to the answers. Even when the answer is uncomfortable, is difficult, is challenging. That’s the personal response.