Kitchener-Waterloo

Indigenous primary care clinic is open in Cambridge — and accepting patients

The clinic is run by the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC). The centre had opened a location on Coronation Boulevard last year, which initially offered mental health support and traditional healing. Primary care was added last month with the hiring of a nurse practitioner and a part-time physician.

Clinic run by Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre

Dr. Philip McCabe is a physician and Charisse Sayer is the integrated care manager at the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre in Cambridge, Ont. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

A new Indigenous-focused primary care clinic is open in Cambridge — and is accepting patients. 

The clinic is run by the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC), which had opened its location on Coronation Boulevard last year. 

The location initially offered mental health support and traditional healing. Primary care was added in April with the hiring of a nurse practitioner and a part-time physician. 

"We're looking at physical, mental, spiritual wellness, as well as emotional," said integrated care manager Charisse Sayer.

"Bringing those four things together is really important."

SOAHAC had been waiting on provincial funding to open the Cambridge location's primary care branch, but ultimately decided to proceed without it, said client care director Dave Remy.

Plans were kicked into high gear after SOAHAC staff spent time in Waterloo region helping with the Cambridge Pinebush COVID-19 vaccine clinic. There, they often heard from Indigenous patients about the barriers they faced seeking healthcare, Remy said. 

Dave Remy is the director of client care at SOAHAC. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

"We know that there is negative experience with healthcare systems with Indigenous people … They've had racist experiences in hospitals, we've heard from clients about this," said Remy.

"We just decided that we couldn't wait any longer and we had to act." 

For now, the centre is stretching its existing funds to run the Cambridge primary care clinic, though Remy said SOHAC has had "positive" conversations with the Ministry of Health and hopes to get a signed funding letter soon that will allow the group to expand.

CBC K-W asked the Ministry of Health if it plans to provide the funding SOAHAC has requested, but did not hear back by publication time. 

What makes the clinic different

For Indigenous patients, Sayer said there can be a base level of trust that comes with knowing many of the clinic's staff have a similar lived experience. 

Staff at the clinic also do their best to make people feel welcome, she said. 

Charisse Sayer says the Cambridge clinic hopes to hire more staff. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

"When a patient or a client walks through the door, they're offered a glass of water or a cup of tea or a snack," she said.

"We have access to traditional medicine … Whether it be sweetgrass, sage, cedar or tobacco, traditional tobacco, we have an opportunity to provide that to them."

Nurse practitioner Karen Anderson sees her role as bridging the gap between between traditional knowledge and Western medicine. 

For example, if a patient were to come in with trouble sleeping and frequent nightmares — Anderson might connect them with a traditional healer, rather than prescribe a sleeping pill. 

"I can understand how profound a dream can be and impactful on someone's life, they also have messages and things that need to be interpreted," she said. 

"That's what the healers will do in order to help them." 

'I'm so excited'

According to Jean Becker, this type of clinic is a long time coming in Waterloo region. 

Becker has lived in the community for decades, and is currently the University of Waterloo's associate vice-president of Indigenous relations. Until this point, Becker said people have had to drive to Toronto or London to access this type of Indigenous-focused healthcare.

"I've been advocating for primary health care for 20 or 30 years for the K-W region, and I'm so excited that this is finally happening," Becker said. 

For now, Sayer said the clinic is "small but mighty." Over time, they hope to bring on more physicians and nurses, along with diabetes educators, social workers and other healthcare staff. 

The Cambridge SOAHAC clinic is open now, but will hold an official grand opening event June 17. 

The Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre opened a location in Cambridge last year. Primary care was added as a service last month with the addition of a part-time physician and full-time nurse practitioner.

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