By Shannon Chartrand
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, July 13, 2020
I am an Indigenous nurse working in long-term care in Winnipeg.
This is not normally the first thing I would tell you about myself, and the truth is I did not always feel comfortable self-identifying as Indigenous. Not so long ago, in fact, I would have avoided that subject and told you my heritage was French (which is also true).
Thankfully, times are changing for the better. Initiatives such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which identified practical “calls to action” to redress the legacy of Indian residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation, and the Black Lives Matter protests aimed at pushing back against racial injustice, have shown that Canadians of all ethnicities and backgrounds are, more than ever, ready to work together to forge a brighter and more equitable future for all.
Much work remains to be done, of course, but as I grow into my work in the Winnipeg Health Region, I want to set an example for the next generation. I have come to feel less fear in sharing these words: I am Indigenous.
It’s a great feeling, and I want my colleagues, friends, family members and the long-term care residents I serve to feel comfortable identifying their own heritage, too. It is important to me to create a safe place for people of every background and to bring together the joy and synergies of those identities.
A few years ago, I accepted a leadership position as director of care at the River Park Gardens personal care home. In addition its potential for personal growth, the position offered me an opportunity to explore the calls to action of the TRC Report and to incorporate Indigenous teachings and traditional activities into our residents’ lives.
Given that the TRC report is robust and encompasses many areas for review – and calls for changes that can require sustained effort over many years – I was not surprised to find people often felt intimidated when its calls to action were discussed.
What did surprise me was the openness of staff to enter into those discussions. And, I must say, I’m delighted.
As we began to be more open with each other and to develop greater trust, something inspiring began to happen: instead of looking to me for ideas, staff began to suggest them on their own. And so it was that in February, as we developed plans to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on June 21 of this year, it was our recreation facilitators who suggested we incorporate activities such as Indigenous dancers, building medicine wheels and offering gifts of tobacco. As it turned out, the advent of COVID-19 put some crimps in our plans, but, in the end, the day was no less special.
The day’s success demonstrates the great things that happen when people of diverse cultures come together in a spirit of co-operation and celebration, even when -no, especially when – the focus of those celebrations isn’t traditional to their upbringing or history.
When we host Indigenous dancers at River Park Gardens, as we did on June 21, spectators’ toes tap and hands wave, regardless of ethnicity. Some dance along with abandon, and many a broad smile crosses the face of a resident, employee or family member.
The recognition that Indigenous traditions, teachings and celebrations are not an exercise in being politically correct, but are an intrinsic part of our shared Canadian identity – well, it’s nothing short of inspiring to behold.
If my new job has taught me anything, it’s that barriers can be broken wherever and whenever we make the effort to build mutual understanding.
Simply put, people are ready to do the work.
The time when many felt compelled to hide their cultural identity is passing. The time when we choose to share, rather than exclude, is at hand.
That’s something we can all celebrate.
Shannon Chartrand is director of care at River Park Gardens personal care home in Winnipeg. This column was published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Monday, July 13, 2020.
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