Student-lead conference shines light on health issues faced by Indigenous communities

HAMILTON – A health conference held this past Saturday brought awareness to non-indigenous community members, medical and mental health students in regards to the significant health inequalities faced by indigenous people in Canada.

The group that organized the McMaster Indigenous Health Conference (MacIHC) was comprised of 10 individuals, including four students from McMaster working through Global Health Specialization — including Yipeng Ge, Sharon Yeung, Deepti Shanbhag and Alex Liu.

Liu explained that the conference was brought out of their hopes in educating others in the health field to give a realistic look at Canada’s health system.

“In our third year of the Bachelor of Health Sciences Program we had a chance to be involved in an extended learning experience as a part of our Global Health Specialization, and we decided that we were interested in learning a lot more about Indigenous health,” said Liu.

“So, we had a chance to work with Dawn Martin-Hill, Karen Hill, and Bernice Downy, and a lot of different collaborators at McMaster in the Indigenous Studies Program, and on the reserve in Six Nations. We made a lot of different connections, and got to learn from so many people, and coming out of that, because of all of the connections we made, we thought that a great thing to come out of this would be a conference to bring to McMaster,” she said, further explaining that in conversation with peers, the group found that their peers barely had any knowledge in regards to indigenous people, much less the inequalities faced by indigenous people in the health system.

Rather than having speakers that would offer sensitized information in regards to the indigenous health inequalities, this conference provided an eye-opening and educational experience that left not only an emotional imprint, but a sense of urgency to correct those inequalities for those in attendance.

Dr. Lisa Monkman, an Ojibway Family Physician from Dauphin Medical Centre in Manitoba, and Dr. Billie Allan, a Traditional Counsellor from York University were both given the floor as keynote speakers. As well, the Six Nations Community Impact Panel comprised of Nince Hill, Mary-Ellen Simon, Lana Hill and Johanne McCarthy offered their own strong and emotional stories in regards to the inequities of the Canadian health system.

In an interview, Monkman explained that although “it’s tough to pick one thing,” the main message she wanted to get across in her time as a keynote speaker was that “transformation and change starts with the individual.”

“We as a nation are generous, innovative, and have a wealth of knowledge to draw upon. We have amazing strengths that will help heal us, but not just us, everybody all throughout Canada,” she said.

Shortly after the Community Impact Panel, those in attendance were broken into several groups for breakout sessions. One of the sessions offered was facilitated by McMaster Sociology Professor Jeffrey Dennis, and was titled “Indigenous Conceptions of Poverty and Health in a Settler-Colonial Context”. The session incorporated statistics to offer thick validation of the inequalities.

“I was happy to hear that some people were not hearing some of these things for the first time, which means that at least some people are getting the kinds of information that will be helpful for de-colonizing,” said Dennis. “But then the big question is how are we going to do this; how are we going to work through this together?” One of his slides read “settler-colonialism is a distinct type of colonization in which colonizers come to stay,” and the “primary motive is to access land.”

This non-sensitized presentation of information continued all throughout the lecture, enabling those in attendance to truly grasp the problems many indigenous people have to experience outside of the health system.

These problems include poverty, schools not receiving adequate funding per student, and high stress levels — each affect health negatively.

After the community fair, a key note speaker and another breakout session; speakers for the Closing Plenary presented closing statements. The Closing Plenary included words from Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill, Kimberly Orton, Dr. Billie Allan, and Lisa Monkman.

Each speaker touched on both emotional and empowering subjects, bringing tears to some in the audience.

Shortly thereafter the closing was performed by Evan Jamieson-Eckel, and a hand drum song was sung by Hannah Martin, leaving the audience enraptured and educated.

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