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'A daunting task': University of Toronto addressing reconciliation in health care education

It's a daunting task for large institutions like hospitals and medical schools to being to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions' calls to action, but some had already begun laying the groundwork before they were even released. The University of Toronto began addressing the intent behind calls to action 22, 23 and 24 — years before the TRC report.
Dr. Jason Pennington and Dr. Lisa Richardson are co-leads of Indigenous health education at the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto. (University of Toronto)

In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report, 94 Calls to Action were listed. Calls to action 18-24 focused on reconciliation in healthcare, covering things like implementing coursework around Indigenous health issues for medical students, and increasing the number of Indigenous professionals working in health care.

It's a daunting task for large institutions like hospitals and medical schools, but some had already begun laying the groundwork before the calls to action were even released. 

The University of Toronto began addressing the intent behind calls to action 22, 23 and 24 — years before the TRC report.

Dr. Jason Pennington is co-lead of Indigenous health education at the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto.

"This all started, first, with trying to increase Indigenous participation in the medical school itself," he explained. "This became more formalized as the years went on, and as we opened the office of Indigenous medical education almost five years ago."

He explained that there are a lot of obstacles when trying to address reconciliation in education and health care. 

"You have to change the whole culture of the institution," he said. "It's a lot of relationship building from senior management, to the teachers, to the learners. It's really hard to decolonize all of these levels."

The original goal was to make it easier for Indigenous people wishing to study medicine, which resulted in the Indigenous Student Application Program.

Pennington hopes to see more Indigenous people in the medical field, but thinks reconciliation in health care affects patients the most. As he explained, simple cultural teachings can make a world of difference.

"If you become a more culturally competent practitioner, you're going to have a better relationship with your patients," he said. "Hopefully, going forward, this will lead to better patient encounters." 

Pennington's knows this type of reconciliation is important on a personal level. He recalled stories of racism and a lack of access to care his own family faced in Quebec City and on the reserve in the 1900s. 

"I don't want that to be perpetuated onto my children." 

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