New Brunswick

More BIPOC nurses needed to ensure culturally safe health care, says First Nation nurse

The Canadian Nurses Foundation is offering a scholarship fund to 19 Black, Indigenous nursing students and researchers of colour across the country. Isabelle Wallace from Madawaska Maliseet First Nation says as a past recipient of funding, financial aid is vital in helping boost representation in nursing.

The Canadian Nurses Foundation is offering a scholarship to 19 people across the country

The Canadian Nurses Foundation is offering a scholarship fund to 19 Black and Indigenous nursing students and researchers of colour across the country. Isabelle Wallace from Madawaska Maliseet First Nation says, as a past recipient, financial aid is vital in helping boost representation in nursing. (Fullhouse Media)

Isabelle Wallace fondly remembers the difference it made for a patient in Ottawa when Wallace recognized the wampum belt tattoo on the patient's arm. 

"Just by saying that and being First Nations and being culturally aware and sensitive ... her eyes lit up and then that's how we started talking about our respective nations," said Wallace, who is now the community health nurse in Madawaska Maliseet First Nation. 

Wampum belts are used by many Indigenous nations to share stories of important events, or to keep records. 

Nurse from Madawaska Maliseet First Nation on the cultural sensitivity component of health care

11 months ago
Duration 3:04
Isabelle Wallace remembers the time a patient first realized her nurse understood her Indigenous background. 'Her eyes lit up,' she says.

"The trust was built just in an instant and I only took five minutes of my time while hanging her IV," said Wallace, who has been advocating for better representation of Black, Indigenous and nurses of colour. 

The Canadian Nurses Foundation played a pivotal role in Wallace's own nursing journey by helping fund her studies. Wallace is a three-time past recipient.

The foundation is partnering with Tylenol to offer scholarship funding to 19 Black and Indigenous nursing students and researchers of colour across the country. The funding ranges from $3,000 - $10,000, depending on the applicant's level of study. 

Wallace is a member of the foundation's equity, diversity and inclusion review committee, which will review this year's scholarship applications. The deadline for applications is March 15.

Isabelle Wallace from Madawaska Maliseet First Nation is a nurse who has worked across the country as far north as Kangiqsualujjuaq in Nunavik. (Submitted by Isabelle Wallace)

"This fund allowed me to not only complete my Bachelor of Nursing in Edmundston, but I also was able to complete my final practicum in a northern First Nation community, and I was also able to pass my NCLEX exam."

The NCLEX-RN, is the final exam for obtaining a licence as a registered nurse.

"For myself, being from a First Nation community here in New Brunswick, I have different needs coming from a reserve and being the first generation to access and complete post-secondary studies," said Wallace.

In a news release, the foundation stated one of the goals of the scholarship funding was to provide more culturally-sensitive health care by increasing the number of nurses from underrepresented communities. 

"A lot of people think that because we're First Nations, we have our tuition covered by the federal government, but that's not true," said Wallace, adding barriers exist such as the requirement to have formal status to qualify.

For Wallace, who pursued a masters degree in cultural competency in nursing, said there is a wide spectrum of cultural care.

"Cultural sensitivity is a good step. It's being aware that your patients might have different experiences in the health-care system based on their interaction with the system, their heritage, colonization, immigration, racism, discrimination," said Wallace. 

"So by being recruited and trained in culturally-safe care, we're able to provide trauma-informed care."

LISTEN | In 2016, Isabelle Wallace from Madawaska Maliseet First Nation talks about the importance of investing in nursing students

Isabelle Wallace is an Indigenous nurse from Madawaska Maliseet First Nation in New Brunswick.She received a scholarship from the Canadian Nurses Foundation and is helping them raise money for future students.

Wallace said it is also important to focus on equity instead of equality.

"If we look at the location of some First Nations being up north, we know that if we have the same right, but we're not located in the same region in the country, we don't have access to the same care. So in terms of equity, we want to give a solution that is not a one size fits all approach."

This also extends to understanding the challenges that prospective nursing students face.

"A lot of students have to leave their home communities to access education, so that comes with a lot of expenses and a lot of challenges in coming from a small knit community and you've never gone to an urban setting."

"For example, for me, I've never taken the bus before going to Ottawa, and that was a big learning curve for me."

Damaging stereotypes 

Wallace said she has experienced the additional burden of educating those around her, both as a student and in her nursing career. 

"I'm always the only First Nations nurse in my team ... So with that comes a lot of education because there is a lot of misconception..." said Wallace. 

"I was told by some of my colleagues, 'Oh, we don't have First Nations patients here.' I said, 'Hold on, what makes you think that?' Just because we don't look, it doesn't mean that we're not First Nations." said Wallace who noted that if a health-care workers cannot identify their patients, they can't provide equitable and culturally-sensitive care.

When racism is encountered in the health-care system, Wallace said that it is important to speak out, but it can come at great personal risk to the nurses of colour who do so. 

 "We've seen many cases in Canada where we've seen racism firsthand ... That's why we need way more nurses that are of colour, Indigenous or Black to really be able to implement those policies and to better serve our diverse population in Canada." 


Mrinali is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has worked in newsrooms across the country in Toronto, Windsor and Fredericton. She has chased stories for CBC's The National, CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup and CBC News Network. Reach out at