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Indigenous women share personal stories to advocate for reconciliation in health care

Five Indigenous women are sharing their health stories in a new digital storytelling project that's advocating for reconciliation in health care.

Project highlights importance of land, language, culture and community to Indigenous women's health

From left to right, Sheryl Liske, Maxine Desjarlais and Shelley Wiart are among the women behind a new digital storytelling project that's elevating the voices of Indigenous women and advocating for reconciliation in health care. (Lawrence Nayally/CBC )

Sheryl Liske says her battle with depression began when she was 18 years old, but she didn't know what she was experiencing or how to address it. 

"I came to realize that all of the twisted emotions of negative thoughts, the lack of self-esteem and feeling really low was from the hurt of intergenerational trauma and lateral violence in my community," she said.

"I lost myself as a person and I didn't know who I was." 

Liske, who is from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, is one of five women sharing their stories as part of a new digital storytelling project: Legacy: Indigenous Women's Health Stories. She hopes other Indigenous women will hear her story and know that it's OK to ask for help.

Liske was diagnosed with clinical depression. While at first she felt stigmatized as an Indigenous woman taking medication for depression, she found that over time the medication along with counselling and journalling helped her heal.

"It's a positive message for young Indigenous women to find out about these different stories and how relatable they are," Liske said. "It's time for people to know this is what's happening. And it's been always happening." 

I feel like Indigenous women need more spaces in order to tell their own stories in their own voices.- Shelley Wiart

The storytelling project aims to educate health-care practitioners about Indigenous women's experiences and advocate for reconciliation in health care. The videos will be published online and launched at an event in Yellowknife Thursday night.

It's part of a research project by Shelley Wiart, a member of the North Slave Métis Alliance, on storytelling as an advocacy tool and the social factors that impact Indigenous women's health. 

Wiart was inspired after hearing women's stories through Women Warriors, an organization she started in 2015 that provides fitness classes and nutrition education to Indigenous women. She said health-care professionals often don't understand how intergenerational trauma and the legacy of residential school can impact Indigenous women's health or the challenges they can face accessing quality health care.

"I feel like Indigenous women need more spaces in order to tell their own stories in their own voices," she said, adding the women had complete control over their stories from writing to selecting photos and music in the videos. 

The storytelling project aims to educate health-care practitioners about Indigenous women's experiences and advocate for reconciliation in health care. The videos will be published online and launch at an even in Yellowknife Thursday night. (Legacy: Indigenous Women's Health Stories/Facebook)

Reconciliation in health care

Wiart said the project also addresses Indigenous healing practices and traditional knowledge, as well as understanding the difference between First Nation, Métis and Inuit women's health. 

"I feel like a lot of us are homogenized within the health-care system and they don't really understand that, you know, we have different cultural practices and what our views are on health." 

The final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous women also called for more culturally-competent and responsive health care, particularly for Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ and two-spirit people.  

"Violence against Indigenous women is, it's a terrible, terrible statistic. And I feel like we need to have some strength-based stories about Indigenous woman," Wiart said. 

Maxine Desjarlais, raised on Fishing Lake Métis Settlement in Alberta, also shares her story in the project. She details her experience as an intergenerational residential school survivor and explains why Indigenous people may wait to seek medical help. 

"I think a lot of people never hear those stories. The second generation," she said.

"I'm very happy to be able to share my story and hopefully it will empower other women to rise up and share their stories." 

Beatrice Harper, Dorothy Weyallon and Tanya Roach are the other women sharing their stories for the project, which highlights the importance of land, language, culture and community to improving Indigenous women's health.

"These women worked really hard on their stories and I'm really proud of them and I'm excited for them to share their stories with the community," Wiart said.

Legacy: Indigenous Women's Health Stories launches on Aug. 15 with an event in Yellowknife at Northern United Place at 6:00 p.m., including a Q&A with all five women. 

Written by Emily Blake, based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally