Taking a lead in reconciliation
I was 19 years old the first time I met my sister’s future husband. A First Nations man from a reserve in the interior of British Columbia, Gerry was a residential school survivor who dedicated his life to working as a counsellor and spiritual advisor to other survivors, their families and communities.
I was a naïve and privileged white girl from a small city in Southern Ontario, and I’ll never forget how one of our first conversations changed me profoundly. He told me of life at residential school, where a young boy had his tongue nailed to a desk for speaking his language. He spoke of the disconnect from family and culture, and described the third world conditions experienced on reserve today. In his home community, the average life expectancy was under 60 years old. His people lived with poor sanitation and a poverty rate that made me feel ashamed and embarrassed for my ignorance.
Previously, I had little knowledge of residential schools or the history of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada. While my Dad was a high school history teacher, I don’t recall ever being exposed to the reality that faces Canada’s first peoples. It simply wasn’t taught in school or discussed as a human rights concern by governments or Canadians. After learning the conditions in many Indigenous communities I decided I didn’t want to be part of the silent majority.
In university, I studied political science and took an interest in social policy in Canada. This foundation led me to working in research and policy, and I spent part of my early career working for two national Aboriginal organizations, fighting for the rights and interests of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. However, working in communities and fighting against the injustices of the Canadian political system took its toll on my emotional and spiritual self. I chose to leave the work I was passionate about, and to use my knowledge and skills working in health policy and, ultimately, at the Canadian Physiotherapy Association.
I share this part of my career path for three reasons. First, I believe exposure to knowledge and the lived experiences of others is valuable to personal and professional growth. Second, while I originally felt uncomfortable for all I didn’t know about the experiences of First Nations, Inuit and Métis history and culture, I feel proud of the connections I’ve made with communities and to be an empathetic ally to advancing the rights and interests of these communities. Third, I don’t believe many Canadians understand the history of Indigenous peoples or the impact government policies have had on the wellbeing of families and communities and I want to change that.
About a year and a half ago, I felt a synergy in my passion to support Indigenous peoples and my work with the CPA. CPA president Linda Woodhouse, and then CEO, Michael Brennan talked about the creation of an Indigenous student award as a mechanism to honour the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Indigenous Student Award is a $10,000 educational grant open to all Canadian Indigenous students (First Nations status or non-status, Inuit, or Métis) enrolled in an accredited Canadian post-secondary physiotherapy program.
When presented to the Board of Directors, it passed unanimously and I was eager to take the lead in coordinating the award in its inaugural year. In the first year, we received a phenomenal 16 applications. There was great diversity in the experience, perspectives, and geography of the students applying for the award, which gave me hope that this award will make a difference in the lives of the recipients.
In my experience, many Canadians are unaware of the challenges Indigenous peoples and communities face, often falsely assuming that many Indigenous students are given handouts of free education. The reality is this: Indigenous students face almost insurmountable barriers to education and advancing their health and wellbeing. Through this new award, the CPA and the Physiotherapy Foundation of Canada (PFC) hope to help address the significant gaps that exist between the health status of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and that of other Canadians, as well as the unmet rehabilitation and mobility needs in rural, remote and Northern communities in Canada.
More importantly however, is the leadership role the profession has assumed following the TRC’s final report. I am not aware of any other health profession that has made a significant financial commitment to growing the number of Indigenous health professionals in Canada. This leadership role is complemented by the dozens of physiotherapists and physiotherapist assistants I’ve spoken with who work every day advocating for their patients and recognizing the critical gap that exists in accessing care in rural, remote and northern communities.
As I begin to celebrate my third year working for the CPA, I can’t imagine a better place to be in my career. I am reminded every day of the care and compassion of the profession and the empathy for diversity in patient experience and patient care. I truly believe that I have found a place with the profession because of the recognition that sometimes we need to push past what exists today, because we all have a role to play in shaping a better tomorrow.
More information about the CPA Indigenous Student Award can be found on our website. https://physiotherapy.ca/cpa-indigenous-student-award
By Kate O’Connor, CPA Director, Practice & Policy
The Indigenous Student Award is a $10,000 educational grant open to all Canadian Indigenous students (First Nations status or non-status, Inuit, or Métis) enrolled in an accredited Canadian post-secondary physiotherapy program. Eligible programs include accredited diploma programs and graduate degrees of at least two academic years.
Through this new award, the CPA hopes to help address the significant gaps that exist between the health status of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and that of other Canadians, as well as the unmet rehabilitation and mobility needs in rural, remote and Northern communities in Canada.