Traditional healing, science sought by aboriginal people
For Dr. Ellen White, health care means treating the spirit as well as the body.
The Snuneymuxw elder studied medicine along the rocky shores of Kuper Island, where her grandmother taught her how to listen to the plants, rocks and ocean. White learned how to "beg and plead" for nature's energy to reach her and how to connect with the natural world.
She is the last of 14 children who decades ago learned the ancient secrets of aboriginal herbalism. At the time, trained herbalists and shamans were common in First Nations communities. They used plants to help close wounds, ease sickness and even provide protection against harmful spirits.
Only a few herbalists practise in the Snuneymuxw community today. Fortunately, many young people are eager to learn the old ways.
"It makes people more aware of where they come from and what the ancestors did," said White, 89, as she sits in the living room of her Nanaimo home. She nods toward an old black-and-white photo hanging on the wall of her grandmother.
First Nations people are statistically at higher risk of disease compared to the rest of B.C., yet they access Medical Service Plan services at a lower rate. Health programs designed by First Nations, which often combine tradition with medical science, have been able to connect with aboriginal people in the central Vancouver Island region more effectively. These types of initiatives could become more common after a historic agreement with the federal and provincial governments was signed in October to develop a new B.C. First Nations Health Authority.
E very now and then, people with colds or fevers will knock on White's door. They're more comfortable with her holistic, traditional approach to medicine rather the sterile environment of a doctor's office.
White believes that modern medicine and ancient First Nations remedies can work hand-in-hand. Sometimes, visitors to White's home will find stacks of coffee tins full of dried herbs like yarrow, known for its antibiotic properties, and columbine, which creates saliva and can provide energy. Creating herbal medicine often involves a combination of spoken words along with preparation of the plants that can sometimes take weeks.
"Certain medical people really believe in it, but others don't want to get mixed up in it," said White, adding that gradually, more health-care professionals are becoming receptive to traditional medicine.
White has dedicated herself to training other people in her community about traditional healing with the hope she can help keep the ancient practice alive.
The Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre in Nanaimo, which White helped found in 1965, provides a holistic, tradition-based approach at its health centre. Traditional prayer, pipe and smudging ceremonies are among the programs people can take part in.
Nanaimo's Peter Moon, 39, always turns to Tillicum Lelum first when he has a health concern.
"They're more accepting of who you are and where you're coming from," said Moon. "Being aboriginal, you feel like you're being judged no matter where you go or what you do. Especially with medical matters."
New initiatives - both provincial and local - have given central Vancouver Island First Nations leaders hope that people will have more access to health-care services they need.
The Intertribal Health Authority has been operating a successful mobile clinic that brings retinal screening devices into remote First Nations communities. This involves a team of medical professionals who test people for eye diseases caused by diabetes.
Health officials say the program reaches those who had gone undiagnosed because of transportation barriers or fear of clinical environments. First Nations people are 20 times more likely than other British Columbians to have eye damage due to diabetes. Eye care nurse Shelly Ellis said she's met people who have never been to a doctor. The Nanoose First Nation is also boosting people's access to medical services by developing a health-care centre in the community. Residents celebrated the groundbreaking last month.
The band had worked for more than a decade to provide additional access for those without transportation or who are too fearful to access clinics elsewhere.
"This means people can feel comfortable talking to our own health-care professionals (on site)," said Nanoose First Nations chief David Bob.
The 4,000-square-foot, $2-million project aims to provide greater access to health services like addiction counselling and dentistry once it opens in fall 2012. The facility is among several in B.C. being funded by Health Canada to provide better access to health care for aboriginal people. And it could be a sign of things to come.
Doug Kelly, chairman of the First Nations Health Council, said past government decisions on health care involved little understanding of what works and doesn't work for aboriginal communities. He thinks the recent establishment of a First Nations health authority in B.C. will help change that. An agreement signed in October will see the federal government's authority, and millions of dollars in annual funding, transferred to the new agency over the next two years.
It will be responsible for on-reserve programs such as mental health services and primary care, while the existing six health authorities will still provide most acute services. However, the province will be working with the new health authority to incorporate First Nations' values and models of healing.
Kelly said he understands that things won't change overnight.
"There's some skepticism, there's some fear. I think once people begin to understand what's coming, they'll begin to support it," he said.
The First Nations health authority will be an equal partner with health authorities and governments when it comes to decision-making, said Kelly. This collaboration means that aboriginal people will have much more say about how they receive health-care services.
"That's one of the first steps to creating trust," said Kelly.
LEGACY OF FEAR
This is the final installment of the Nanaimo Daily News' in-depth look at how health-care services are not connecting with many First Nations people.