New Brunswick

Hospital authority offers sacred medicines to meet cultural needs of Indigenous patients

Horizon Health now offers sacred medicines, traditionally used by Indigenous peoples in smudging ceremonies, to patients in seven of its New Brunswick hospitals.

Chief Allan Polchies of St. Mary's First Nation calls it a first step in breaking down barriers

Horizon Health now offers sacred medicines in seven New Brunswick hospitals to meet the cultural needs of Indigenous patients. (Submitted by Horizon Health )

Horizon Health now offers sacred medicines, traditionally used by Indigenous peoples in smudging ceremonies, to patients in seven New Brunswick hospitals.

Shelley Francis, co-chair of the health network's Indigenous liaison committee, said the hospitals now have sweet grass, sage and cedar for use in smudging ceremonies, which are often used to calm and ease the anxiety of Indigenous patients prior to a procedure.  

She said these medicines are critical for the cultural needs of Indigenous peoples in health care, and the offering has been in discussion for 30 years.

"It feels amazing and I have the grey hairs to prove it," said Francis.

"It's pretty much the highlight of my career to see the transformation of the health-care system."

Francis, who is from Tobique First Nation, said she smudges with these medicines to clear her mind and heart before leaving her house every day.

She said Indigenous peoples have a strong history of intergenerational trauma because of residential schools.

"This medicine helps to ground us and helps to provide healing for us so that maybe we can be strong in helping somebody else," said Francis.  

Co-chair of the Indigenous liaison committee at Horizon Health, Shelley Francis says it's been the highlight of her career to see the transformation in the health-care system in supporting Indigenous cultural needs. (Oscar Baker III)

Each hospital involved in the project is equipped with a guide for how to perform a smudging ceremony. 

Elders from St. Mary's First Nation were invited to demonstrate a traditional smudging ceremony to the hospital's manager and staff. 

"They were extremely well attended. We had two of them, with 80 people at both webinars, learning and wanting more," said Steve Christie, co-chair of the Indigenous liaison committee.

Francis said patients can perform the ceremony themselves, have it performed by a loved one, or can request a staff member perform it for them. 

Horizon Health has been working to have an official smudging policy in its hospitals for almost a year and a half. 

The process is extensive, said Christie, and requires support from local fire departments and Indigenous leaders from across the country. 

He said the policy will allow for more educational events and could lead to potentially offering a fourth sacred medicine, tobacco. 

The sacred medicines are available in the following seven hospitals.

  • Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital

  • Miramichi Regional Hospital

  • Moncton Hospital

  • Oromocto Hospital

  • Hotel-Dieu of Joseph in Perth Andover

  • Saint John Regional Hospital

  • Upper River Valley Hospital. 

The Stan Cassidy Centre for Rehabilitation in Fredericton will soon offer the medicines as well. 

"I can definitely see the Indigenous liaison committee wanting to expand it to all facilities," said Christie.  

St. Mary's First Nation Chief Allan Polchies said this offering is a step toward breaking down barriers of systemic racism. 

St. Mary's First Nation Chief Allan Polchies says the offering of sacred medicines is one step toward breaking barriers of systemic racism. (Logan Perley/CBC)

But while it's a positive step, he said, there are still more changes that need to be made. 

Polchies said it would be helpful to have nurse practitioners who are able to speak Indigenous languages working at these hospitals. 

Prompted by a pandemic

Francis said she was worried for Indigenous communities when the pandemic hit New Brunswick, because their cultural needs were not being met inside hospitals.

"I just didn't know how it was going to go down, but I know that our community members are vulnerable to illnesses and if COVID-19 were to ever be found in our communities, it would spread like wildfire," she said.

"That was my biggest concern — what are we going to do for our elders?" 

Work to make the program happen began in April 2020, and Horizon began offering the sacred medicines in November. 

Francis said this has been a promise she's worked to make happen since she graduated from nursing school in 1993. 

"My vow to my people was to help them, to help change the system, to do whatever I could to make sure they got quality health care," she said. 

Discussions about offering sacred medicines in hospitals began in 1994.

She said back then, Indigenous peoples weren't sitting around the table and providing input in decision-making, and she "never thought it would be possible."

First step to reconciliation in health care

Francis said there is still a lot of work to be done in meeting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action that need to be addressed by the health-care system. 

Number 22 of the 94 calls to action offered in the 2015 commission states : We call upon those who can effect change within the Canadian health-care system to recognize the value of Aboriginal healing practices and use them in the treatment of Aboriginal patients in collaboration with Aboriginal healers and Elders where requested by Aboriginal patients.

"I think this is a great step forward in understanding that there could be possible needs beyond Western medicine," she said.  

"It's also a demonstration of solidarity with Indigenous peoples."

Francis said there has been an increased interest from health-care workers who want to learn about Indigenous culture and show their support. 

The sacred medicines are available to all patients who request them. 

Francis said it would be a "beautiful thing" to see non-Indigenous patients appreciating these medicines and reaping the benefits they offer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Isabelle Leger is a reporter based out of Fredericton. You can reach her at isabelle.leger@cbc.ca

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