Covenant Health moves toward reconciliation

When it comes to reconciliation, many within Covenant Health are optimistic about the future.

“We are heading in the right direction, the lines of communication are opening and the wheels are turning,” says Clarissa Gustafson, executive assistant and member of Covenant's Indigenous Advisory Body.

Since 2016, the organization has been working towards developing internal strategies aimed at answering the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The key pieces implemented to date are primarily under the umbrella of cultural competency education and awareness.  

“Important things are happening — online employee training models, staff presentations and a third-party organizational assessment are some examples,” says Jon Gilchrist, interim corporate director of diversity, ethics and volunteerism. “I look forward to when we are further along the path toward reconciliation, but there’s still a lot of learning that needs to be done. Awareness is growing and good questions are being asked.”

Covenant Health also recognizes the significance of building relationships. “This work requires earning the trust of those with whom we as institutional health care seek to reconcile,” says Jon. “Cultivating trust is a monumental and ongoing work. This is why, in part, I think the work grows slowly. It depends on personal connections and trustworthy relationships as much as it depends on demonstrations of institutional integrity.”

Many staff members across the organization have stepped forward with new Indigenous-based initiatives and programs. An example is the programming led by the recreation team at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre.

“The 4Y unit at the Edmonton General has a high percentage of Indigenous residents,” says Brenda Neuman, recreation therapist. “So we started looking at more specific programming to help connect them with their culture.” 

The programming started in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed things down and limited what the team was able to do. “We started the ball rolling in the right direction. It’s just been a slow moving ball,” says Brenda.

Prior to COVID-19, the 4Y team organized an event where they hosted three-time world champion hoop dancer Dallas Arcand. Many of the residents were delighted to see their culture being honoured. “They felt so respected. It’s something they grew up with, something that is part of their roots,” says Brenda.

Although they’ve had to scale down some of their big event ideas, the team continues to find ways to shine a spotlight on Indigenous culture and keep reconciliation on the minds of staff and residents. This year for National Week for Truth and Reconciliation, the team organized an event where they raised the Survivors’ Flag to remember the individuals, communities and cultures forever impacted by the Canadian residential school tragedy and show commitment to the ongoing work of reconciliation.

Scott Stewart speaks at the Survivors’ Flag ceremony at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre.

Social worker Scott Stewart knows that there are still many operational questions that need to be answered as part of reconciliation. “How do we bring traditional medicines on site? Do we have medicine bundles and smudging supplies here, and which team would be responsible for that? Those are some of the many things we need to work on as we go forward. That will come from working with our Indigenous Advisory Body,” says Scott.

Formed in 2019, the Indigenous Advisory Body seeks to open lines of communication and give voice to various concerns pertaining to Indigenous staff and the communities served by Covenant Health. Amber Ruben, Indigenous Advisory Body member and pharmacist at the Misericordia Community Hospital, reflects on the group's responsibilities.

“Our healthcare system is built within western frameworks, and so it is a system formed without Indigenous knowledge. Because of colonialism, there is sometimes a hesitancy to approach our institutions. And so I think it’s really important to have this advisory body to help educate staff, to make our facilities welcoming and receptive to the different belief systems of various Indigenous groups.”

Amber Ruben dons her "Every Child Matters" shirt at the Misericordia Community Hospital.

The advisory body’s members have their own unique reasons for joining the group. For Clarissa, it is a calling to make a difference in her organization and community. “I love the idea that we can provide people with the space and resources to get the education so they can share that information in their own homes and communities. Information is wealth,” says Clarissa.

She also joined the group as a way to honour her Metis roots and explore the culture that was mostly hidden from her as a child. “I knew that my grandma went to that school (St. Bernard’s in Grouard, AB), but I had no idea what happened there. She never talked about it. I didn’t find out until a couple years ago, and that’s insane. She lived in total fear that her kids or grandkids would be taken away and, therefore, was reluctant to share her Indigenous culture with me.”

Clarissa Gustafson

Although these internal dialogues and various initiatives are a step in the right direction, First Nations social worker, care coordinator and Indigenous liaison Valerie Courchene knows there is so much more that can be done. She references the inclusion of traditional ceremonies as just one of the many things required to continue moving toward reconciliation.

“In terms of cultural events such as drumming ceremonies, for example, that needs to be happening. When they speak of reconciliation, that is part of coming together. We need to work together more than we are now.”

Valerie also stresses that the education aspect of reconciliation is crucial for Canadians. “When I left my reserve, I learned a new system and culture, so now I understand both ways. Non-Indigenous people don’t know our culture; they only know one way. Let’s get to know each other so we can be one.”

orange shirt flag

On National Day for Truth and Reconciliation this year, it is important that everyone recognize the true significance of the occasion, says Amber. “We should really be walking into this day with a sense that we need to learn more for ourselves and engage in reflection as opposed to just taking it as a holiday.

“This day is so important for people all across Canada. Many Indigenous people you encounter will have family members who are residential school survivors. My dad was a residential school survivor. My grandma and many of my aunts and uncles were survivors. I think that recognizing the impacts that these systems have had is important and a step forward for Canadians.”

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