Aiming to address the health disparities faced by Saskatchewan’s Indigenous people, the University of Saskatchewan’s Gathering for miyo mahcihowin — meaning gathering for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being — brings forward approaches to develop respectful and complementary partnerships between Indigenous communities, health care providers and researchers.
The conference, which was attended by more than 400 people, is one of many steps the university is taking towards reconciliation by changing the formula for academic conferences, said Dr. Holly Graham, conference co-chair and faculty member in the College of Nursing.
Much of the time, discussions at university conferences are determined by academics within the system, but to change that approach they decided to reach out to Indigenous people, organizing the conference around what they considered to be priorities for their health and well-being in an effort to create partnerships between the people and those providing their health care, she said.
“That is part of a unique first step I think to changing our relationship with the community. So the people experiencing the greatest health disparities can actually prioritize what they want to address and who they want to hear from.”
One of the requested speakers was Dr. James Makokis, a family doctor practising in Alberta whose aim is to combine Cree medicine with Western practices. Past traumas, paired with the systematic removal of traditional healing methods, has created a massive disparity in mental health resources for Indigenous people, he said.
“Indigenous medicines are the original medicines to this continent. They have kept people healthy with our healing system and medical system intact for thousands of years.”
Although the western medical system is very good at treating physical ailments, it does not address the underlying issues that link a patient’s physical health with their mental well-being, Makokis said.
Citing the success of music therapy for patients suffering from PTSD as an example, Makokis said adding Indigenous teachings to those therapies — like learning the words and meanings behind traditional songs — can help make these positive changes more quickly.
“There needs to be space made for Indigenous medical practitioners, traditional medicine people and elders — it shouldn’t be a matter of should it be done, it has to be done.”
Dr. Jaris Swidrovich, conference co-chair and lecturer in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition, said the most important part of addressing these health disparities is to look at the lasting effect intergenerational trauma has left on Canada’s Indigenous people.
“There is so much more than we see,” he said. “Even recognizing the history of my own family, I can absolutely draw a connection between previous government policies and the health consequences that my family is experiencing today, and sometimes it’s not as easy for members of the general public to make that connection.”