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UNIVERSITIES ADDRESSING INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES’ DOCTOR SHORTAGE
By Suzanne Forcese
It has been an ongoing and worsening issue that remote communities, a dearth of medical services, and lack of opportunity have exacerbated. According to a federal report, Indigenous people have 15 year shorter life expectancy than non-Indigenous people. Canadian Universities are looking at ways to close the gap in a system which has largely been a legacy of colonization. In a step forward to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, specifically #23 which calls on all levels of government to increase the number of Indigenous professionals working in the health-care field, The University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, has taken a closer look at ways to advance Calls to Action by prioritizing Indigenous students in the Faculty.
WaterToday had the pleasure of speaking with Director, Indigenous Health Initiatives Program in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta, Tibetha Kemble (Stonechild),PhD(candidate). Kemble, who calls herself ‘Nehiyawak Iskwew’ (Cree woman) and a child welfare survivor of the Sixties Scoop, has a 15 year history as a Federal public servant specializing in Indigenous Public Policy. Combined with her background in Educational Policy she has been instrumental in a governance process at the U of A that has removed the upper limits for Indigenous applicants into the Faculty of Medicine.
“In 1988, the U of A was the first medical school in Canada to allow 5 seats for Indigenous students. At that time it was a huge step.” The Indigenous Health Initiatives Program (IHIP) which was founded in 1988, was to encourage a greater number of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis students gain access to and graduate from, all Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry programs. Since the program’s inception, the IHIP has been a leader in the recruitment of Indigenous students.
“But over the last decade we have seen a trend of 18-24 brilliant and goal-oriented students apply and we have had to whittle it down to 5. It has been heart-breaking to have to turn them away,” Kemble said.
Kemble emphasizes that this forward momentum of removing that limit could not have been accomplished without all the people who partnered together to make this a reality. “It has been a great journey. We are now seeing four times the interest by applicants and at least 2-3 inquiries a week about the program.”
Indigenous applicants who are accepted into the program will begin studies in September, 2020. “We are trying to redress history,” Kemble added.
What Kemble alludes to is the history of colonial policies that shaped the Indigenous people’s perceptions of the medical caregivers that resulted in feelings of mistrust, anxiety and fear. Added to that fear was the reluctance of Indigenous students to progress beyond any form of secondary education. “Experiences of the indigenous people in residential schools, as well as the 1880 Amendment to the Indian Act to demonstrate how Canadian Medical Schools have previously (either knowingly or unknowingly) been participants in assimilating indigenous students have greatly impacted decisions to move forward in education. The 1880 amendment removed one’s status as an Indian person and in many cases the ability to return to one’s home. A legislation that was in place for more than 80 years made it understandable that so few of us dared to enter a professional program.”
“With Indigenous medical students in the system we have a mechanism to address those historical disadvantages.” Transformative change can also be redressed with the number of Indigenous medical students who will now have a voice in speaking to the needs of their communities.
All Indigenous students who meet eligibility requirements will be offered a place in the medical school which accepts 165 students every year out of over 1400 applicants. IHIP is designed to support Indigenous students in becoming health professionals in their communities of origin. Through their work they become important change agents in their communities. Kemble’s vision is to see all programs in all universities across the country narrow the gap in the under-represented Indigenous population.
WaterToday visited a few more universities. The University of British Columbia stated: “The Faculty of Medicine welcomes applications from qualified, self-identified Canadian Indigenous people. The Indigenous admission process of the Faculty has a target of 5% of the annual complement of the funded seats in the first-year MD undergraduate program. Applicants who self-identify as Indigenous will be considered under the Indigenous application process as well as under the general admission process.” In other words – there is no quota limit. To date, UBC has 106 graduates with Indigenous heritage.
The University of Saskatchewan has “Ten percent of the positions available in the MD program each year specifically for applicants of Aboriginal ancestry. The program is designed to support growth in the number of Aboriginal People becoming doctors in Saskatchewan.”
The University of Manitoba recognizes that “First Nations, Metis and Inuit people face large health gaps when compared to the general population, and this is rooted in historic and current systemic marginalization and disadvantage.” The Max Rady College of Medicine has created a stream so that Indigenous students are ensured of an opportunity to become physicians.
The University of Toronto’s MD Program is committed to excellence through equity. The admission requirements for all students are identical. What differs for those applying through the Indigenous Student Application Program is the requirement to submit a personal essay and to have representation from Indigenous health leadership. There are no fixed seats or quotas.
The province of Quebec created a Quebec First Nations and Inuit Faculties of Medicine Program in 2008. Every year 4 students from Quebec who have First Nations or Inuit status may be admitted to the program. The 4 places are shared by the Faculties of Medicine in Laval, Montreal, McGill and Sherbrooke. The choice of university is based on a candidate’s preference as well as available places within those faculties.
Equal opportunity for underrepresented groups is what Dalhousie University is affirming. “The program aims to address the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and further Dalhousie’s commitment to social accountability to the Maritime Indigenous population.”
Newfoundland /Labrador University reserves 3 seats for Aboriginal applicants out of the 80 available seats.
While it is evident that there is not a uniform removal of quotas there does appear to be a movement in that direction. All the universities stress that admission requirements must be met and that is where another hurdle needs to be surpassed. For Kemble that is still part of the ongoing legacy of colonization as primary and secondary education in many Indigenous communities has been underpinned by lack of funding. However it is her vision that as more awareness is created, and as more Indigenous students enter the practice of Medicine, the greater the future of all Canadians regardless of background.
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