A Student Perspective: Indigenous Healthcare Forum Provides Opportunity for Gathering Wisdom

May 1, 2023 | Burlington, ON
Contributed by Bella Stein

For three days, I was immersed in conversations on Indigenous healthcare. I heard the progress, the unmet needs and the potential of how BC First Nations are working, in collaboration with the First Nations Health Authority and Federal and Provincial partners, to be better and do better for their people.

Gathering Wisdom for a Shared Journey (GW) is a province-wide health forum bringing together Chiefs, health leaders and partners to discuss current progress in health and chart a path forward for Indigenous healthcare for BC communities. Unlike most conferences, it is actually a decision-making forum where 203 community Chiefs and proxies come together to make important decisions on healthcare, a forum size most organizations only dream of achieving. This year, after a long, 18-month process on engaging with First Nations communities, a new strategy and consensus paper would be discussed and voted on – a process that has only happened twice before in BC, and never anywhere else in the country. I was initially drawn to attend GW to see the culmination of this engagement and the voting process.

Honouring staff at the Gathering Wisdom Indigenous health conference.
Honouring staff at the Gathering Wisdom Indigenous health conference.

I previously worked at the First Nations Health Authority in BC, and took part in the first year of this engagement process. This included visiting communities across BC and attending health forums for Chiefs and leaders to come together. The topic: What does the path look like for Indigenous healthcare in BC? Where do we want to be in 10 years?

I was invited to return back to BC and attend the conference, and immediately took the opportunity. A thank you to the DeGroote Experience Fund, and all of our generous donors, for making this possible.

It goes without saying that this conference is quite unique in several regards. The first is it showcases the strength and resilience of Indigenous People, a stark contrast from the usual media portrayals of drug addiction, homelessness and disparity. On a basic level, it is interesting to think about how the portrayal of certain populations influences popular perception. In MBA terms, the “marketing” of news-worthy issues surrounding Indigenous health might lead someone to believe that First Nations people have no ability to care for themselves, are a lost cause and are not responsible enough to take needed action. But if we instead reframed Indigenous health to focus on indicators of wellness, reclaiming health and building on the good work already done across the country, does this not set a completely different tone?

This lesson for me, about the importance of how complex issues are marketed in popular media, and how this affects public perception, was encapsulated during the first day; a group of youth ambassadors were asked to introduce themselves and say “I am proud.” As one young man said – “I am proud of who I am, and I wouldn’t want to be anyone else or be from anywhere else.”

The second lesson I took away from my time at Gathering Wisdom relates to the complexity of government and other high-level relations. Representatives from the federal government showed up at the conference, congratulating BC First Nations on passing the resolution and stating that the Canadian Government looked forward to working together to support healthier communities.

In 2017, the Canadian Government stated that “No relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.” Since then, however, many people argue that the government has not done enough and acted without respect to Indigenous Peoples, especially when we look in relation to the pipeline dispute in Alberta and British Columbia. At DeGroote, we hear all the time about the importance of networking, of meeting the right people, because you never know when that connection will become important. But this conference highlighted the importance of building strong and genuine connections, something that I think can be easily forgotten in a cut-throat business environment.

We sometimes focus too much on how our networks can “elevate our careers,” instead of looking at the bigger picture – how a network of strong, trusting relationships can actually create and foster meaningful collaboration and societal change.

Bella Stein at the Gathering Wisdom Indigenous health forum with Grand Chief Doug Kelly.
Bella Stein at the Gathering Wisdom for a Shared Journey Indigenous health forum with Grand Chief Doug Kelly.

Building on this theme, the very fact that there exists a province-wide, established process for building consensus, leading up to province-wide vote, is nothing short of incredible. Too often we hear about low voter turnover, and lack of stakeholder buy-in, or the absence of affected populations in decision-making processes. To me, the BC First Nations Health Governance structure is a system well worth replicating and learning from. For example, prior to voting on the consensus paper, a forum was held where any Chiefs or political lead could stand up and voice their concerns or support, and everyone in the room would listen, not interrupt, and acknowledged that individual’s voice. I’ve too often seen only the loudest people in the room have a voice in decision-making. We have a lot to learn from Indigenous People in BC.

My final takeaway from this incredible conference was the need to walk softly, and move slowly.
In the current climate where popular buzzwords such as “strategic change,” “innovation” and “organizational transformation” dominate, it’s easy to think fast and efficient changes mean better results. In fact, the opposite is often true, as a lack of buy-in from stakeholders can create unsuccessful transitions, low uptake and general discontent. At the conference, I listened to many presentations on community-level projects to revitalize language and cultural practices, and every program shared a similar theme.
The time was taken to listen to Elders, to involve youth and to empower individuals to come together to support change. Bottom-up, organic relationship building creates lasting change for these communities, not some well-written policy from Ottawa.

These are all lessons I hope to carry with me on my journey forward, as I hope to one day help open a health centre in Northern Canada, largely serving Indigenous communities. Thank you to everyone at DeGroote who supported my attendance at this conference, and for the continuous learnings in this journey.

Bell Stein poses with a sign that says reclaim.

One thought on "A Student Perspective: Indigenous Healthcare Forum Provides Opportunity for Gathering Wisdom"

  1. Nicole says:

    Awesome Bella, it was nice to see you. A lovely surprise!

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