A conference in Whitehorse is looking at how the Canadian health-care system can better serve Indigenous people. 

And delegates to the Pathways to Health Equity for Aboriginal Peoples' conference — including First Nations' community health workers and others with experience on the front lines — think there's room for improvement.

Dr. Cara Tannenbaum is scientific director at the Canadian Institute for Health Research's Institute of Gender and Health, one of the event's organizing groups.

She believes what is called "western medicine" can sometimes dismiss culture, community relations, spirituality and other factors, even though those can have measurable effects on patient health and recovery.

"What I think we are hearing at the conference, is that there are a lot of aspects of physical and mental well-being that maybe we hadn't considered. The western mentality may not be the best way to approach health and well-being for Indigenous populations," Tannenbaum said.

One example, she says, is the hospital setting. 

"Those white sanitized walls where you stay in a box with people you don't know — is that truly the best healing place?" she asked.

The conference has also heard about efforts to make institutions friendlier to Indigenous patients.

Yukon has a First Nation Health Program which can help provide transport to and from communities, inform family members of relatives' progress, and can even provide traditional foods and cultural medicine to people in hospital.  

A program offering similar comfort through country food is being expanded in the NWT

Focus on gender and gender identity

This is the third year for the conference, organized by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Native Women's Association of Canada. 

Its stated goal is to "increase [the health-care system's] capacity to interact with Indigenous communities in a culturally appropriate manner."

Terri Crookedneck

Terri Crookedneck is a community health worker in the Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. She says women sometimes face greater obstacles in seeking care, such as difficulty travelling away from family. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

This year, one major theme is gender.

Terri Crookedneck is a community health worker in the Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation, which is on a reserve in Saskatchewan.

She says people may not realize there are barriers for women to seek care. A simple example is the time and ability to travel.    

"You have to travel off-reserve an hour or so to see a doctor. And it's harder for women. You're looking after your children, no babysitter, sometimes no transportation, no money. Lots of poverty on the reserve," she said.

Crookedneck says she supports the conference's holistic approach to health care, and its discussion of culture in care.   

"These research institutions are coming together, trying to help our Indigenous people regain their health. Physically, mentally, spiritually, and all aspects of health," she says.  

Workshops continue this week in Whitehorse.