As a health care provider or social worker, are you looking to better engage with Indigenous peoples in Canada?

In July, Health Standards Organization (HSO) hosted an Engaging with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, communities and organizations “Are You Ready?” webinar.

The session, which featured Marilee A. Nowgesic, CEO of the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association (CINA), Kimberly Fairman, the Executive Director at the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research (ICHR) and Alyssa Bryan, RN, MScN and Program Manager with the Standards and Evidence Development team at HSO, aimed to help people learn the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of meaningful engagement generally but also, in the time of COVID-19.

We’ve put together a few helpful tips from the webinar that will help you engage with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in a more informed and positive way.

1. Take the first steps:
Nowgesic noted that as a person living in a non-remote community, you most likely have access to the Internet. “That is the first doorway to understanding where we live, for example,” she said.

Nowgesic said that if you are preparing to engage with these communities, take the time to go online and learn about the Band Council and the Regional Chief. She adds that you should also take the time to learn about the issues a community is dealing with and the bias they face.

Both Nowgesic and Fairman note that you need to be willing to learn. “Be in a position to say, ‘This is what I’ve learned. Please correct me if I’m wrong,’” Nowgesic said. “Engagement is about building authentic relationships.”

2. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable:
Both Nowgesic and Fairman noted that oftentimes, Indigenous community members feel like outsiders. If you are preparing to engage, you – as a non-Indigenous community member – should get used to feeling this way.

In the webinar, Bryan said that when she began working with HSO’s Cultural Safety and Humility Standard Technical Committee, she realized that engaging with Indigenous communities is an ongoing learning process.

“When you’re ready to engage, you’re ready to have long-lasting relationships and be on an ongoing learning path,” Bryan said. “Each time you meet with a new group, there will be different ceremonies and different protocols. Have transparency and be genuine about your engagement.”

3. Learn the language:
In terms of COVID-19 and of health care in general, Nowgesic said you should take the time to learn about how Indigenous communities communicate. She noted that you should focus on language that is simple and easy to understand.

“For example, we don’t have a term for ‘virus’ or for ‘cancer,’” Nowgesic said. “We explain things in our own languages. We explain things that are happening to a physical body in that current time, which can be manifested in an animal or a bug etc. It’s that creation language.”

Fairman added you should aim to use language that invites cooperation and co-design. “You have to use language that is invitational and not a ‘power over’ type of language,” she said. “We use language sometimes in a way to control. Be cognizant of that.”

4. Focus on in-person connection (when possible):
Though in-person communication has been limited by COVID-19, Fairman noted that this remains the best way to build lasting relationships with Indigenous communities.

Fairman said that COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into a sense of community and of common understanding. As we are currently limited to video communication, Fairman said that building these relationships can be challenging.

“Expect that to be amplified,” she said. “Recognize that video conferencing is limiting. Expect that miscommunication can happen and strained relationships can pop up.”

5. Take initiative:
“Get over the barrier of waiting for someone to tell you what to do,” Fairman said.

Fairman said that you should take responsibility for your own learning and “honour the need to understand.”

She added that context and history are important from both an Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspective. When communicating, aim to focus on existing commonalities rather than differences.

“We need to tolerate the discomfort and understand the disagreement to move towards the next step in our relationship. To move beyond reluctance and towards engagement,” Fairman said.

Do you want to know more about preparing to engage? You can watch the full webinar, which was presented in partnership with the Canadian College of Health Leaders (CCHL), here. Additionally, download the Indigenous Health and Wellness Toolkit for more information.

Developed with HSO’s affiliate, Accreditation Canada, the complimentary toolkit supports First Nations and Indigenous Health Service organizations in urban, rural and remote areas across Canada in responding to COVID-19.