Canadian medical schools commit to increasing Indigenous student admissions

Canada's 17 medical schools are teaming up with the Indigenous Health Network in an effort to increase the number of Indigenous students enrolled in their programs.

New action plan will be relationship based, hopes to recruit more Indigenous students into medical field.

Dr. Marcia Anderson has helped lead the action plan. It will focus on recruiting more Indigenous students and the development of Indigenous health curriculum with an anti-racism approach in medical schools. (Submitted by Dr. Marcia Anderson)

Canada's 17 medical schools are teaming up with the Indigenous Health Network in an effort to increase the number of Indigenous students enrolled in their programs.

It's part of a new Joint Commitment to Action on Indigenous Health adopted by the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada. It's aimed at helping the schools address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action 23 and 24, which call for increasing the number of Indigenous health care professionals and educating doctors and nurses on Indigenous health issues.

"It's setting up a relationship where Indigenous communities and Indigenous people can be fully involved as much as they want to be, in training the physicians that will ultimately be serving them," said Dr. Marcia Anderson, chair of the Indigenous Health Network, which drafted the plan.

The plan calls on medical schools to work toward admitting a school-specific minimum number of Indigenous students each year. It also calls for culturally safe training for all medical students and policies that do a better job of supporting Indigenous staff and faculty.

Métis admissions increasing

The plan has been in the works for two years. It features 10 targets, with its strongest focus on recruiting more Indigenous students into medical school.

Anderson said there has been an increase in the number of Indigenous students admitted to medical programs over the past 10 years, but most of them have been Métis.

"In my conversations with colleagues across the country, none of us have observed a significant increase in the numbers of First Nations or Inuit learners [applying]. So they still remain relatively underrepresented," said Anderson.

She said First Nations and Inuit students still face educational barriers.

Anderson is a registered member of Peguis First Nation and grew up in Winnipeg's North End. She said on-reserve schools are still chronically underfunded and a lot of urban First Nations people don't have access to the same educational opportunities as non-Indigenous students.

"If you don't have robust access to science and math education, that really doesn't set you up well for undergraduate university," said Anderson.

"So right from that very beginning, educational opportunity becomes a major barrier to why we don't have more First Nations applicants."

Other barriers include getting the resources and financial support to prepare for and take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

'First, Willow, you need to finish Grade 10'

Willow Thickson, who is Anishinaabe-Métis, fell in love with dancing while growing up in Edmonton and originally wanted to study kinesiology.

She had to leave high school to take care of her younger brother and when she went back to finish, she attended the Boyle Street Education Centre. It was there that she thought about becoming a doctor.

"I said to my counsellor, 'I think I want to be a doctor.' He said 'Oh, that's really good that you have such big goals. But I think first, Willow, you need to finish Grade 10,'" laughed Thickson.

She obtained her high school diploma and got accepted into the University of British Columbia, where she studied kinesiology and health sciences.

"I realized that kinesiology is not going to fulfil my need to know so much about the human body or help our people," said Thickson.

It was during her undergraduate degree that she met James Andrew, who she calls "the Indigenous uncle" at UBC. Andrew is the Aboriginal student initiatives co-ordinator at UBC's Faculty of Medicine.

Willow Thickson is in her third year of medical school at UBC. She says seeing other First Nations doctors has helped her along her educational journey. (Submitted by Willow Thickson)

She credits Andrew for guiding her and other Indigenous students through the admissions process, and the MCAT.

Since 2006, UBC's faculty of medicine has graduated 102 Indigenous doctors. Today Thickson is in her third year of medical school, and plans to graduate next year.

She said it's been challenging to come from a different background and level of support than her peers "and the things that I'm engaging with outside of school look a lot different than everybody else around me."

She credits Andrew's help and the inspiration of First Nations doctors like Anderson and Dr. Nadine Caron, who is recognized as the first female First Nations general surgeon.

She hopes more Indigenous students apply to study medicine.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1