Windsor health centre provides 'culturally safe' space for Indigenous people

The Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC) is a place where Indigenous people in the community can access a range of services, from mainstream health care to traditional healing. And it's expanding.

The clinic offers services from mainstream health care to traditional healing practices

Lacey George, a traditional healing liaison at the clinic, says they offer smudging to clients at almost every visit. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

The Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC) is a place where Indigenous people in the community can access a range of services, from mainstream health care to traditional healing.

And its Windsor location is expanding.

When it opened in 2015, the clinic had only one nurse practitioner. But this year, thanks to funding from the Ministry of Health and from Erie St. Clair Local Health Integration Network, they've been able to hire up to 12 staff, renovate to expand their space and improve their services. 

Creating a safe space

The clinic's goal is to create a "culturally safe" space for patients, where they can access traditional medicines if they need them, explained Lacey George, a traditional healing liaison at the clinic.

When the clinic first opened a few years ago, it had only one nurse practitioner, but this year, they've been able to hire more staff. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Access to medical services can be a challenge for members of the Indigenous community, George explained.

Transportation access, facing racism in the mainstream health care setting or having flashbacks from being in a residential school are some of issues they face, she said.

"So we're making sure that the mental, the emotional, the spiritual and the physical are being serviced. If they want," said George.

She explained that they offer smudging to clients at almost every visit. The clinic also has sacred bundles for clients, and they provide "culturally safe ceremonies, circles, land-based teachings, and access to traditional healers and elders."

'Making a difference'

The clinic offers mental health and addictions services and advocacy support in the same place.

Dr. Chintan Shah says working at the clinic has been a rewarding experience for him. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Dr. Chintan Shah, who joined the clinic six months ago, said it's a unique approach and allows patients to get help quickly if they're in a crisis.

"It intrigued me ... Over here, I can be a physician that can focus on a patient's holistic health."

In a private clinic, the average physician has about seven minutes per patient, Shah said. But at SOAHAC, he has the ability to spend up to 30 minutes to an hour with each person.

"Here, I feel that my education and my experience can really be of use and changing or making a difference in someone's life."

'I love helping my people'

It's also a rewarding experience for George.

The clinic's goal is to make sure that clients have access to traditional medicines if they need them. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

"I love helping my people. I've come a long way and I've worked really hard on myself to be where I'm at today and I know what it's like to struggle, and I want to help those who need it.," she said.

She mentioned she would like to know what kinds of services people want to see, including having more community-led programming in the space.

George is planning on expanding the garden behind the building for healers to meet their clients in a place where they can reconnect to mother earth, potentially even setting up a teepee.

Renovations almost finished

The health centre used to occupy a small space in the same building at 1405 Tecumseh Rd. W., but they've been renovating and expanding. They expect the renovations to finish by the end of December and to host a grand opening in the new year.

One half of the centre has already been renovated. The other half is still undergoing renovations which should be completed by the end of the year. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

The Windsor location is one of several in the province.

SOAHAC has been around for 20 years, with its main office in Chippewas of the Thames and its most active site in London. It also has a satellite site in Owen Sound.

The location in Windsor has reached more than 500 people to date, and sees five to 10 new intakes each week.

"It makes it all worth it when I see my clients and how much they grow and when they tell me, 'I love coming here, I love seeing you, I love the feel of this place,'" said George.

About the Author

Katerina Georgieva

Katerina Georgieva is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Windsor. She has also worked for CBC in Charlottetown, Toronto and Winnipeg.