The nearly 7,000 emotional and often tragic stories from the survivors of Canada's residential school system gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada provided a powerful backdrop to a standing-room only gathering of physicians and other health care providers at a special pre-General Council session on Indigenous health, held Aug. 20.
Truth and Reconciliation commissioner, Dr. Marie Wilson, set the tone for the discussion, saying she wanted to serve as a "channel for the survivor's words" at the session.
"The ongoing work of truth and reconciliation going on in this country is not in fact just about Indigenous wellness," said Wilson. "It's about the wellness of our shared country."
Wilson went on to say that a shift in attitudes, behavioural changes in society and new skills will be required to improve the health and wellness of Canada's Indigenous peoples.
"What is it about the way that we have organized our lives and our communities and our resources in this country that has made one group of people so disproportionately unwell?" she said.
Ensuring that physicians are more aware of the particular concerns of Indigenous patients and communities, that new training is provided and that plans to improve care are both clinically and culturally sound were all key areas identified for action.
Dr. Evan Adams, Chief Medical Officer of the First Nations Health Authority of B.C. and Dr. Karen Hill, who leads a practice combining traditional Indigenous and western medicine in Ontario, both provided examples of new approaches to improving First Nations health.
Dr. Alika Lafontaine, president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada (IPAC) and member of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (RCPSC) Indigenous Health Advisory Committee, told the crowd that the time is right for action.
"I know my colleagues and I know the delegates that come to the CMA General Council every year do this because you care," said Dr. Lafontaine. "Indigenous people need to hear that. They need you to say that and you need to know that Indigenous people are ready for health care transformation."
In July 2015, the Assembly of First Nations adopted a resolution calling on the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's health recommendations. Last year, delegates to General Council adopted four resolutions supporting collaborative activity to improve health care for Indigenous peoples.
In closing the session, CMA President Dr. Cindy Forbes cited the need for both action at the national level as well as in practices and health care centres across Canada.
"To have that single message about how important it is to be part of this process of reconciliation is key and that is a message that we did deliver last year and we will again this year," said Dr. Forbes. "Each of us as physicians also has a role to play and that is important as well."
The session was organized in partnership between the CMA, the College of Family Physicians of Canada, the IPAC and the RCPSC, which has identified improving Indigenous health as a key strategic priority.