Celebrating the Aboriginal Health Sciences Initiative as Dal looks toward province‑wide services for students

- March 31, 2017

Professor Diana Lewis (left), President Richard Florizone and Kara Paul, managing director for Dal's Aboriginal Health Sciences Initiative, discuss their takeaways from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission forum in 2015. (Staff photo)
Professor Diana Lewis (left), President Richard Florizone and Kara Paul, managing director for Dal's Aboriginal Health Sciences Initiative, discuss their takeaways from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission forum in 2015. (Staff photo)

The reach and impact of Dalhousie’s Aboriginal Health Sciences Initiative (AHSI) over its eight-year run stretches far beyond its small offices and two staff members based in the Mona Campbell Building.

After eight years, the program is winding down as initiatives transition to a broader university-wide effort to advance student-focused Indigenous programs. The AHSI has played a key role in transforming Dalhousie’s approach to Indigenous support services and programming, helping the university grow its leadership in diversity and inclusion of Canada’s Indigenous peoples as it approaches its third century.

From student support and research to policy development, the AHSI, led by managing director Kara Paul, has established a strong foundation from which the university can build.

“Before the AHSI, Dal had virtually no presence on the Indigenous education scene nationally,” says Dr. Keith Taylor, professor of mathematics, former dean of the Faculty of Science and co-chair of Dal’s Indigenous Strategy Steering Committee. “Through the AHSI, Dal quickly established a professional presence on provincial and national committees and by 2012, we had a recognized, meaningful national voice."

An Indigenous perspective

The establishment of the AHSI created an internal resource with which other university units could engage to include an Indigenous perspective on current or new initiatives. Since 2009, the AHSI’s work has influenced curriculum in programs like Nursing, Dentistry and Medicine.

It provided a model for creation of the successful Promoting Leadership in Health for African Nova Scotians (PLANS) program, which similarly aims to increase representation of a traditionally marginalized group in the health sphere. And early successes from the AHSI and PLANS’ junior university summer camps and other pathways programs led, in 2015, to a partnership between Dalhousie and the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. This matching gifts agreement is allowing for expanded programming and supports for African Nova Scotian and Indigenous students interested in health careers.

“Dalhousie’s Aboriginal Health Sciences Initiative has encouraged our various training programs to be responsive to the unique needs of Aboriginal populations,” says David Anderson, dean of medicine. “We’re committed to fostering an educational environment that welcomes learners who are representative of the Canadian population.”

AHSI has also enabled Dal to build multiple collaborations with Indigenous communities across the Maritimes, says Dr. Anderson.

“In an effort to recruit and retain Indigenous health practitioners in our region, we look forward to building upon these important partnerships,” he says.

A catalyst for growth

In many ways, the outreach work of AHSI and Kara Paul’s membership on a broad range of university and external committees acted as a catalyst for the growth and evolution of Indigenous services at Dal. The AHSI’s foundational work, coupled with increasing support and attention from the university since 2013, and increasing national attention as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, created an environment ripe for change.

“I’ve seen a big shift here at Dalhousie, even just in the past eight years,” says Paul. “You can feel the change when you walk around campus and see our flag on the quad.  We have momentum now and we need to keep that going.”

In the eight years since the AHSI launched, Dal has created an Indigenous Studies minor, an Aboriginal Student Centre (staffed with an Aboriginal Student Advisor), the Elders In Residence program, implemented an annual Mawio’mi on Treaty Day, introduced the medicine pouch ceremony at convocation and installed the Mi’kmaq Grand Council flag permanently on both Halifax and Truro campuses.

“The AHSI laid the foundation for supporting Indigenous students pursuing a post-secondary education in a health-related field,” says Richard Florizone, Dal’s president. “We want to ensure that any Indigenous student interested in university has access to the supports they need to succeed. That is why our strategic priorities include the development of an Indigenous Strategy to actively respond to the TRC Calls to Action.”

Building on progress

“AHSI has clearly demonstrated the real need to focus our energies and resources in order to have even greater impact,” says Fiona Black, associate vice president, academic. “In recognition of the need to advance our student-focused Indigenous initiatives beyond the health Faculties, Kara will support our shift in focus to explore the feasibility of developing common strategies across Nova Scotia’s post-secondary institutions to best support all prospective and current Indigenous students.”

Commencing in April 2017, Dal will undertake a feasibility study exploring opportunities for a more collaborative model in Nova Scotia to enable access and support for Indigenous students interested in any field at the post-secondary level.

“The work initiated by AHSI is not done. We’ve made progress, built a foundation for indigenizing the campus, but there is much more to do,” says Paul. “The next step is to look at how we can take what we’ve learned and expand it to the university and Nova Scotia more broadly.”


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