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Photo of of Amira and Michael Dan.
Photo courtesy of Amira and Michael Dan

Birth of a Collaboration

Institute for Indigenous Health opens at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health

At the Toronto Birth Centre, there’s a tree festooned with ribbons, each celebrating the birth of a new child. Governed by indigenous midwives, the centre shares traditional aboriginal practice and knowledge with the mothers it serves. It also focuses on forging positive relationships between midwives and mothers – relationships that often lay the groundwork for future generations, says Janet Smylie, a professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. That’s the type of meaningful connection people are looking for in health care – one that allows individuals and communities to take an active role in their own health.

This idea is becoming more prevalent in today’s world, and perhaps nowhere is it more needed than in indigenous communities. Despite substantial progress in recent years, indigenous peoples in Canada continue to experience a level of health care and health outcomes substantially lower than that of non-indigenous Canadians. This is why donors Michael and Amira Dan gave $10 million to the University of Toronto to establish the Institute for Indigenous Health at the Dalla Lana School, which is led by Dean Howard Hu.

Smylie and Carol Strike, also a professor at the school, have been appointed co-chairs of the academic committee setting the priorities for the institute. Smylie is excited by the prospect of providing students with the opportunity to learn about the strengths that exist in indigenous communities, so that they might combine this knowledge with what they’re learning in the classroom. The institute will facilitate this by building new partnerships with indigenous communities and recruiting respected indigenous knowledge leaders to steer the organization’s direction.

“The actual creation of an institute that merges traditional and contemporary experience in health is a truly exciting development for indigenous peoples the world over,” says Elder Fred Kelly, a member of the Ojibways of Onigaming and a citizen of the Anishinaabeg Nation. “It is noble in vision and bold in mission. Its spirit of innovativeness is a dream coming true.”

Special skills and dedication are needed to combine the knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples with the science that evolves in university labs and libraries, and to come up with solutions that are lasting and will be appropriate to the community. Smylie believes that the new institute will champion this cross-cutting approach, encouraging scientists to think in a translational way, in keeping with U of T’s history of scientific innovation. While the health issues that confront Canada’s First Nations are the same as those that exist in the wider population, health outcomes tend to be poorer and services less accessible. Therefore, the institute’s research will extend beyond the usual view of what constitutes health to include food, security, housing, employment, general quality of life and happiness.

“The institute will help us to move beyond a vision of just trying to reverse negative health outcomes, to one where we’re supporting innovation, capacity, and relationships to enable a healthy future,” Smylie says. “Working with the community, we will be able to encourage new ways of thinking about health, ultimately allowing people to feel empowered.”

With files from Michael Kennedy

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