Illustrating colonization: Painting the link between history and poor health outcomes for Indigenous patients

The images and colours are vivid. Bright greens, blues and pinks are contrasted against a black background. The artist, Lisa Boivin, is a member of the Deninu K'ue First Nation, N.W.T. She is also a PhD student studying rehabilitation science at the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto.
Lisa Boivin is Dene and a member of the Deninu K'ue First Nation, NT. She is also a PhD student studying rehabilitation science in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto. (University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine)
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Originally published June 3, 2018.

The images and colours are vivid.

Bright greens, blues and pinks are contrasted against a black background.

The artist, Lisa Boivin, is a member of the Deninu K'ue First Nation, N.W.T. She is also a PhD student studying rehabilitation science at the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto.

Boivin started drawing four years ago to get through her classes.

"There really is no long romantic history of longing to learn how to paint," she recalled. "It was literally just hating what I was studying."

Boivin would take markers to class and doodle in the corners of her notebooks until a professor commented on how disruptive her drawing had become.

"So I started using this digital painting app on my computer so I could continue to doodle undetected," she said.

Soon after, art became an even greater refuge for Boivin. She is a Sixties Scoop survivor, a period in Canadian history where thousands of Indigenous children were adopted out to white families.

As she was learning about colonialism, cultural displacement and intergenerational trauma in the classroom, she was also reuniting with her biological father, an experience she calls, "extraordinary".

Lisa Boivin's piece, 'Land out of Sight,' is about her father's fight with cancer. (University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine)
"How I marvelled at the power of colonialism, for here I was a woman who was 40 years old and I had to learn that I was colonized in a colonial institution," she said, her voice trembling. "It changed me. It caused a profound sense of disorientation."

As she was processing her own history and being asked to complete projects about residential schools and trauma, she spent hours talking with a trusted professor. When it came time to hand in a project for her final grade in the course, Boivin said she didn't have the words to write a paper. Instead, she asked if she could hand in an art-based piece. 

Since then, what began as doodles in her notebook have turned into bright, image-based stories that explore the gap between medical and land-based, Dene ethics. 

Filling the gap

Now working as an arts-based healthcare educator who teaches clinicians about Canada's colonial history and how it impacts the health outcomes of Indigenous people, Boivin is used to getting feedback on her work. She said often, when Indigenous people find out how she uses her art to educate, they share their own negative experiences navigating the healthcare system.

'So far from Denedeh' by Lisa Boivin helps to bridge the gap between Western medicine and Dene traditional knowledge. (University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine)
One common story she hears is that Indigenous people do not seek medical attention because they are seen by healthcare providers as drug-seeking and their pain is denied.

"Often this manifests as a diagnosis that is linked to a terrible illness like cancer. So Indigenous patients who could have got help earlier on would have had better outcomes with their illness."

Ultimately, her goal, with her work, is simple.

"I want Indigenous patients to feel safe when they go to the doctor."