A trio of Indigenous nurses says on top of caring for people, they have to be vocal advocates, fighting for change in a health-care system that Indigenous people don't always trust.

They're using Indigenous Nurses Day on May 11 to shed light on discrepancies between health care provided to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

These are the stories of three nurses working passionately to heal their communities, create change and make a difference.

Viola Brown 

There are two key moments that stick out in Viola Brown's life.

The first is when, at 12, she told her grandma, who was undergoing kidney dialysis, that one day she would be able to take care of her.

Viola Brown

Okanagan Indian Band member Viola Brown says Indigenous nurses are crucial to bridging gaps between the health-care experiences of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. (Viola Brown)

The second is when her father laid a sweet grass braid on her hospital bed after a car accident and said a prayer — and then was scolded by health-care professionals.

Wanting to help and witnessing misunderstanding inspired her to become a registered nurse and now nurse practitioner.

"From my experience with having that negative experience, I can understand why, for example, an elder having chest pains that could indicate a heart attack might not want to come to the hospital for fear of being treated poorly," Brown said.

An Indigenous nurse can help Aboriginal people feel safe in an environment that is often sterile, foreign or even hostile, she said.

"I think Indigenous nurses are imperative to bridge the gap in health care and providing safe, ethical, competent care to Aboriginal communities," she said.

Brown believes looking at health care through a cultural and spiritual lens can help maintain health and wellness.

She teaches powwow dance and beading at a local high school once a week because traditional and identity teachings are part of health promotion and prevention, she said.

"We need to find a balance between traditional and Western medicine practices to ensure the wellness for all Indigenous patients."

Tania Dick

Tania Dick, who will soon become the first Indigenous president of a nursing organization in B.C., was inspired in her career by her mother, Mary Macko, a nurse and activist who fought for Indigenous rights.

"She talked a lot about her residential schools stories and the health care issues that they faced and how they were treated," Dick said from the nursing station in Alert Bay.

Dick is a registered nurse in her home community of Dzawadaenuxw on the northern tip of Vancouver Island in Alert Bay and the incoming president of the Association of B.C. Nurses.

Tania Dick

Tania Dick is a registered nurse in her home community of Dzawadaenuxw on the northern tip of Vancouver Island in Alert Bay. (Tania Dick)

Her mom, a survivor of St. Michael's Indian Residential School, experienced and witnessed trauma from physical, mental and sexual abuse and as a result zeroed in on mental health nursing.

Her daughter wants to see systemic changes.

"I realize a lot of the issues of discrimination towards Indigenous people in the health-care system — it doesn't matter how strong our voices were — the impact is horrific," she said.

After Dick's aunt died, trying and failing to access medical care in an emergency room, she realized stereotypes and assumptions play a large role in the care Aboriginal people receive or don't receive. Health-care practitioners need to have hard conversations about racism more often, she said.

More Indigenous nurses are needed to help Aboriginal patients to feel comfortable, she also said.

"When they see a brown face or someone they trust, especially since they don't trust the overall system, they feel safer."

Indigenous people for the most part have a better grasp of the impacts of colonization, cultural practices and specific Indigenous health determinants, Dick said.

"We are absolutely vital. That's the only way things are going to change, is if we see more Indigenous nurses," she said.

Dick feels more hopeful seeing new Indigenous student nurses popping up.

"This change will not happen in my lifetime but the work that I do — the baby steps are steps that the next generation won't have to take."

Natashia Moodie

For Natashia Moodie, being a nurse is about providing a continuum of care that often includes education and advocacy.

Natashia Moodie

Natashia Moodie says nurses need to advocate for Indigenous people who might not have access to clean drinking water, affordable food and safe housing and hence live in poor health conditions. (Natashia Moodie)

"A lot of our people today are dealing with poor health conditions they cannot control, like not having access to clean drinking water, overcrowded housing and not being able to afford overpriced food in communities," said Moodie, a Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation member.

She said as an Aboriginal nurse, she feels it's her duty to provide optimal care but also to express the urgent need for access to basic health requirements like clean water and healthy food.

Moodie is an agency nurse, meaning she jumps from community to community across Manitoba. She juggles that workload and caring for three small children but her passion for the work drives her, she said.

"I know exactly what it's like to come from a First Nations community and what it's like to not have the resources that other communities in Canada have, and I want to give back and provide the care that is so needed," she said.