University of New Brunswick nursing school should have mandatory course in Indigenous health, says instructor

The director of the Indigenous nursing program at the University of New Brunswick, says a mandatory course in Indigenous health is needed for all nursing students to improve health care for Indigenous people.

'Every health-care provider needs this education,' says Indigenous nursing program head

Shelley Francis is a Wolastoqiyik nurse and director of the Indigenous nursing program at the University of New Brunswick. (Oscar Baker III)

The director of the Indigenous nursing program at the University of New Brunswick, says a mandatory course in Indigenous health is needed for all nursing students to improve health care for Indigenous people.

"Let's face it, racism is pervasive across the country but when our people start experiencing undue stress and are choosing not to access health care for fear of experiencing racism, we have a problem," said Shelley Francis, a Wolastoqiyik woman from Neqotkuk/Tobique First Nation.

She's spent 27 years in the health-care field and said she has faced racism. Francis said her peers would call her 'Pocahontas' or ask if she lived in a teepee. She said she was so disheartened by those interactions that she was hesitant to identify as Indigenous.

In July 2017 she took over as director of Nutsihpiluwewicik, UNB's Indigenous nursing program. Nutsihpiluwewicik is Wolastoqiyik for "healing clan."

The program's main goal is to help Indigenous nursing students succeed, but Francis said non-Indigenous nurses can take courses on Indigenous health through the program, as well.

'Culturally safe care'

"Whether the nurse is Indigenous or not, when they see an Indigenous person accessing the health-care system they will be able to provide culturally safe care for that Indigenous person so they don't have to re-experience trauma through systemic racism in the health-care system," said Francis.

She hopes more culturally aware nurses can better serve Indigenous patients.

Darline Augustine is a licensed practical nurse for the Elsipogtog Health Centre and agrees nurses need to understand Indigenous perspectives.

"The health-care system needs to know the background of Native people," said Augustine.

She has worked in the health-care field since 1993. Augustine said some residential school survivors who suffered abuse might not want to disrobe or participate in other invasive procedures and medical staff need to be aware of it.

Language barrier

The Mi'kmaw nurse said the barrier between Indigenous people and medical personnel is a personal one for her. Her father, who speaks Mi'kmaw, has heart trouble and needed to be treated in Saint John at the heart centre.

"He was so scared that he wouldn't understand what they were saying," said Augustine.

Her family was able to go with him. She worries that other elders won't always have that option and wants more Indigenous people to work in the medical field.

"We need more Native nurses and doctors at the hospitals," said Augustine.

Complaint about smudging

Francis's course on Indigenous perspectives on health and wellness teaches Indigenous history, the history and legacy of residential schools and Indigenous ways of healing.

She also smudges her students, with their permission, before every class and hopes to bring them to a land-based education class in the upcoming weeks.

But it hasn't been easy. Francis gets permission to smudge from the university's facilities management but a complaint was made one night recently. Despite having permission to smudge, security forced her to open a window. Francis said she felt humiliated and said interactions like that are another barrier for Indigenous people.

Another barrier is cost. This summer with the help of another professor she secured $80,000 in funding which went to pay for the land-based education, rawhides so nurses could make medicine pouches, drums and Indigenous medicines, along with honorariums for elders. Francis said elders have a lot of knowledge to offer and should be paid like other professionals coming in to speak.

"Teaching these nursing students about the connection to Indigenous land and Indigenous health and wellness is important," said Francis, adding it's important for everyone to work together toward reconciliation.

"Every health-care provider needs this education," said Francis.


  • A previous version of this story stated a course in Indigenous health would be mandatory for nursing students at UNB next fall. In fact, the course has yet to be approved by the administration.
    Nov 20, 2018 11:17 AM ET

About the Author

Oscar Baker III is from Elsipogtog First Nation, and St. Augustine, Fla. He is a freelancer based in Wabanaki.