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A closer look at Indigenous health: Dr. Carrie Bourassa next up in HSN speaker series

'More open lines of communication needed' between Indigenous communities and health care professionals
Indigenous & Northern Health and Senior Scientist at Health Sciences North Research Institute, Dr. Carrie Bourassa is the fourth speaker in HSN and HSRNI's speaker series. (Matt Durnan/

Health Sciences North is continuing to gather community feedback as they shape their strategic plan which is set to be unveiled early next year.

Now in the "Discovery Phase" the hospital and its research institute have been hosting a series of speaking engagements with experts from the health care field in Ontario. May 30 will see the fourth of five speakers, and the only local health care professional to take part in the series, Dr. Carrie Bourassa.

As chair in Indigenous & Northern Health and Senior Scientist at Health Sciences North Research Institute, Bourassa will be discussing the state of Indigenous health on May 30 and 31 at the HSN Rock Garden Cafe, and making links as to why the health status of Indigenous people is so poor.

Similar to the overarching goal of the speaker series itself, where engaging the community to shape the hospital's future, Bourassa explains that there is a disconnect between Indigenous people and the health care system, and there needs to be more open lines of communication.

"It's not just about physical access, it's about inequitable access. If Indigenous people are too afraid to go to the hospital because they're going to be treated poorly because you're First Nations, Métis, or Inuit, that's something that we have to address," said Bourassa.

"For the most part, communities really know what the answers are but we don't do a very good job of listening and understanding how research needs to translate into culturally safe programs and services and policies. I think HSN and HSNRI really have to start ensuring that Indigenous grassroots communities are directing the health research priorities."

Bourassa has been an Indigenous community health researcher for nearly 18 years and has worked with and helped a number of communities engage with research in a variety of capacities.

"I've undertaken HIV work, dementia work, and these aren't my priorities or anything I've wanted to do, these are their priorities and we've always taken a strengths-based approach," said Bourassa.

"What I've learned is that regardless of the topic, whatever the priority happens to be, almost all of the projects have been some kind of path to culturally-safe care."

Beyond just providing a more tailored health care system to those who access it, Bourassa says there needs to be a closer look at creating safe work places for Indigenous health care workers as well.

"We really need to understand what cultural safety is, there's a lot of confusion about it with things like cultural sensitivity and cultural humility, but really cultural safety encompasses all of those, but it focuses on understanding that it's predicated on understanding power differentials and systemic issues. If you're not really dedicated to that and just say 'let's invest in cultural safety training and tick the box' like so many employers do, you're really not addressing anything."

There are a number of different strategies to be considered moving forward, but Bourassa says that what is needed overall is a model of patient and family-centred care, and community engagement sessions like this speaker series can help to shape what that model will look like.

"Is it a cultural safety and social accountability model? Is it something we can include the Health Council of Canada recommendations from 2012 which was a national consultation with Indigenous communities?" said Bourassa.

"There's so many great things we can think about for our own model and I don't think you can just pick one model and say, here it is."

Bourassa is also the scientific director with the Institute of Indigenous People's Health, where an Indigenous Health Advisory Committee with a terms of reference has been established, and is the type of grassroots, community-driven organization that Bourassa believes is needed at HSN and HSNRI to help provide guidance when it comes to drafting a strategic plan.

"Whether it's creating a model or a different strategy, but we need the community. We've created a list of people, from elders and allies at Laurentian University who would give us that guidance," said Bourassa.

"I imagine that we (Indigenous Health Advisory Committee) will work together with HSN and will be integrated into the overall strategic plan, because I don't think it makes sense to have two separate plans. I think it makes sense to have separate committees and the Indigenous Health Advisory Committee to have some autonomy, but I think overall we should have some integration."

Admission to the Speaker Series is free, and there are two dates/times. The first is May 30 at 7 p.m., with a repeat engagement on May 31 at 7 a.m.

To book your spot, and find out who's next in the Speaker Series, click here.


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