Junior University helps prepare Indigenous teens for careers in health

- July 31, 2018

Left to right: Sierra Julian (Paq'tnkek Mi'kmaq Nation), Etush Mckay (Sheshatshiu Innu Nation), Marcie Toney (Acadia First Nation). (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Left to right: Sierra Julian (Paq'tnkek Mi'kmaq Nation), Etush Mckay (Sheshatshiu Innu Nation), Marcie Toney (Acadia First Nation). (Bruce Bottomley photo)

This July, 40 Indigenous youth from Atlantic Canada and as far away as Quebec and Labrador attended week-long health science camps at Dalhousie, Cape Breton University and St. Francis Xavier University.

Now in its second year, Junior University aims to “expel the myths and nervousness of leaving their communities and coming to a university to study,” says Joe MacEachern, manager of Indigenous health programs at Dalhousie Medical School and coordinator of the Dalhousie camp.

A university-like experience

The campers, in grades 7 to 11, have a university-like experience, living on campus and learning about jobs in health care.

Marcie Toney, 16, of Annapolis Valley First Nation, learned how to drill teeth and fill a cavity in her second year at Junior University.

“I’ve always wanted to be a dentist,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to come to Dalhousie. I wanted to get familiar with what’s offered and I learned a lot coming here.”

She and fellow students Sierra Julian, 16, of Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation, and Etush McKay, 16, of Sheshatshiu Innu Nation, Labrador, have never been to see an Indigenous nurse, doctor or dentist for health care, either on or off reserve.

“Indigenous people are under-represented in the health-care professions in Canada,” says MacEachern.  “Everybody deserves to receive health care in a culturally safe and culturally appropriate manner. Everybody also deserves to share in the opportunities these well-paying careers provide.”

Sierra was excited by the nursing activity workshop. “It was cool having a nurse I could talk to. She had a great point of view on what nursing is all about. She has a job planned at the IWK in September and I think that would be really cool.”

Etush excels in science. “I’ve always wanted to be a surgeon and I’ve also thought about being a pharmacologist,” he says. “I’m going into grade 12 so I’ll have to make up my mind soon!”

Historical barriers

Kids growing up in First Nations in Canada have historically lacked mentors in health care.

Up until 1961, Indigenous people who attained a university degree lost their treaty status and couldn’t live in their communities anymore. “That’s why we see a huge lack of mentors,” says MacEachern.

Parents didn’t tend to talk to their kids about becoming a doctor or a nurse, either. “Nowadays you hear it,” says MacEachern. “We’re seeing the benefits of the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey school system in our rising high school graduation rates.”

Dalhousie wants Indigenous youth to know that health care offers many potential career opportunities for them.

“We realized in order to get our number of applicants up we had to start at a young age. Grades 7 and 8 are a real transformative time for youth,” MacEachern says, noting that the summer camp and other programs seem to be working. “Five of the 20 students who attended this year’s Junior University in Halifax say they want to be doctors. This is amazing!”

Change at Dalhousie

The Junior University is part of Dalhousie Medical School’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which guides Indigenous peoples and Canadians in the process of reconciliation to address the legacy of the residential school system.

“We are taking our obligation to the calls to action to recruit and retain students very seriously,” says MacEachern of his role at the university. “We want to make sure there is a safe environment on campus for these young people, so they feel they belong, and we’re helping to Indigenize the curriculum.” In fact, this fall all first-year medical and nursing students will take an Indigenous course.

Youth programs through Dalhousie’s Indigenous Health Program, funded by the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, are expanding. There are camps taking place in Sydney and Antigonish in collaboration with St. FX, CBU and NSCC. In 2019, the Eagle “Kitpu” Wise camp will be held again during March break in Halifax.

Opening eyes

MacEachern, who grew up in Antigonish and whose multicultural heritage includes Métis, Mi’kmaq, Scottish and French, is committed to being a “solid ally” to work with Indigenous youth to ensure they know about the pathway to postsecondary education and a health career.

During the year, MacEachern advises past campers on filling out application forms and accessing scholarships, to assist them in pursuing their higher education dreams.

A lot of the camp is about building confidence, he adds: “We send them home with more confidence in themselves and their ability to accomplish things.”

“Just staying in residence makes me feel more comfortable,” says Marcie, “not just with the university but with Halifax.”

“I’ve never toured a university before,” says Etush. “This really opened my eyes. It gave me a sense of individuality and what it would be like to be in university.”

Sierra liked the practical element of learning what high school courses to take for nursing and how to handle a university workload. “It’s such a big step going from high school to university. Camps like this give you a better understanding.”


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