Federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott announced Wednesday in Thunder Bay a new mentorship program for indigenous students pursuing careers in health research.
The announcement was made during the opening remarks of a day-long workshop hosted by the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM). The workshop was put on by local indigenous leaders and youth to address health issues facing First Nation communities with a focus on, what NOSM Dean Roger Strasser calls, the “epidemic of youth suicide.”
The Indigenous Mentorship Network, funded to the tune of $8 million by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, will pair First Nation, Metis and Inuit research students with senior research scientists in the field.
“There will be increasingly more research done by indigenous health care researchers on the issues that are of importance to them,” said Philpott.
The federal government is introducing the mentorship program, effective immediately, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. It will be available to students at all levels, undergraduates, graduates and post doctoral.
Philpott said she was pleased to make the announcement at the Pathways to Well-Being: Walking in Two Worlds Workshop as it pertains to the topics that were being discussed.
The workshop grew out of a NOSM-hosted indigenous research gathering in Sault Ste. Marie last summer where youth were glaringly absent. That absence pointed to a need to discuss the critical issues facing indigenous youth, including suicide, said Strasser.
The hope was that a day of group discussions by indigenous youth and leaders would result in an action plan for the next five years.
“It’s about a future for health and well-being where suicide doesn’t enter into the picture,” said Strasser.
Jason Smallboy, deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said he thinks partnerships between First Nations communities and organizations like NOSM are so important when addressing the health care needs of First Nations people.
“It’s good to come together like this and talk to people who are interested in helping provide better health care,” said Smallboy. “And hearing directly what’s needed from the First Nations is also good to brainstorm on how you can move forward together and actually address the problems.”
In her speech during the opening of the day of workshops, Philpott said research is such an important piece of the puzzle and the hope is that the Indigenous Mentorship Network will build knowledge based on, “indigenous ways of knowing and doing.”
“We hope that this will have a huge impact in terms of the health outcomes,” she said. “Acknowledging that the solutions lie in the communities who know exactly what they need to be well.”
Philpott also said youth suicide can not be over simplified, it is a deeply complex issue that has it’s roots in trauma.
“Medicine alone will not fix this, counselling alone will not fix this,” said Philpott. “This requires people being able to have a decent income, adequate housing, safety in their communities, educational opportunities, employment opportunities, clean water, clean air.”
One of the best ways to influence the pathway to well-being, said Philpott, is to focus on healthy birth and early childhood, which includes changes that were made last year to Jordan’s Principle, a child-first principle which is meant to ensure First Nation children receive the health care they need.
The motion was passed in parliament in 2007, said Philpott, but was essentially never implemented. Last year the government worked to clarify and broaden the definition of Jordan’s Principle.
“Since work started last July we have identified 8,800 cases where kids were not getting care,” she said, calling it a step in the right direction. “We went from zero children accessing care to close to 9,000.”
First year medical student at NOSM, Jason Beardy, of Muskrat Dam First Nation said that although he is a believer in solutions coming from the First Nation communities themselves, the communities still require support and resources from both the federal and provincial governments.
As for the workshop, Beardy said, “if people can leave from here, go back to their respective communities or the organizations that they work for and try to mobilize on the recommendations at their level, I think that will actually be a very good take away from this workshop today.”