April 20, 2022
New Bachelor of Nursing degree route widens opportunities for southern Alberta Indigenous students
It’s morning on the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta, and it’s a little quieter than usual in Valene Rae Bear Chief’s home. Her husband’s at work and her two older boys are in school. Two younger ones are still at home: a little girl of one, who alternately sits on Val’s hip or crawls across the bed, and a very active three-year-old boy, who wants to know everything his mother is doing.
Four children, a husband, and a house to run would keep anyone busy, but it doesn’t stop there for Val. She’s about to begin something new that stems from an important collaboration between Old Sun Community College (OSCC) in Siksika and the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Nursing.
Finding a way forward
Growing up in a remote area of Siksika, Val was, for the first six years of her life, the sole child in a house with seven adults. “My mom was the only one with a job,” she says, “and that gave me a strong foundation to do things for myself.”
At 20, Val took a clerical job at the Siksika Health Centre. During that time both her grandfather and mother became seriously ill; with that personal experience with the health-care system, Val realized what she wanted to do. With time and perseverance, she earned her licensed practical nurse (LPN) designation.
Following jobs in surrounding communities, a temporary position opened at Siksika Health Services and brought her back home. From there, COVID-19 parachuted her into a position on the frontlines of the pandemic, but only temporarily.
“I realized I was probably going to always struggle to find work as an LPN,” she says. Val’s dilemma was that there were no programs available to learn the skills to become a registered nurse while maintaining her family and community life.
A program takes shape
Enter a collaborative program between OSCC and UCalgary. Created to offer a blended format (online, on campus — both at OSCC and UCalgary — and in the community), the idea of a new nursing degree program route grew.
Two years after planning began, a ceremony officially launched the Bachelor of Nursing – Indigenous Community Route (Siksika Pilot). The Siksika Nation Chief and Council were on hand along with representatives from Siksika Health Services, OSCC, and the University of Calgary.
Dr. Maurice Manyfingers, PhD ’10, is president of OSCC. He says there is great interest and willingness in the community to embrace the program. “If we can marry modern western health-care practices with Siksika traditional spiritual ways, then we have the best of both,” he says.
And of the launch itself, Manyfingers says, “Ceremony is a very important part of recognition, and it gets the program started in a good way.”
“Most Indigenous students today, including our Siksika students, face multiple challenges and obstacles while trying to get an education,” explains Debbie Smith, BN’94 , co-ordinator of the Bachelor of Nursing, Indigenous Community Route at OSCC.
“Now we can offer future students an opportunity to learn from western teachings in a culturally inclusive, familiar, and safe learning environment — an environment that embraces the traditional ways of the Siksika people by the teachings of our values and traditions as important components of the program,” says Smith.
Louise Baptiste, MEd’18, is the director of Indigenous Initiatives in the Faculty of Nursing. She agrees with Smith and adds, “This program was developed to address some of the barriers students from our surrounding First Nation communities faced to entering a nursing program.
“Having nurses with degrees can make a monumental difference in the sense that these nurses are able to hold leadership positions and can enact change for better health-care outcomes for Indigenous people.”
A name gifted with a focus on healing
The program is called Iiyikinaami — a traditional Blackfoot name, gifted to the program by Elder-in-Residence Herman Yellow Old Woman and given through ceremony by Knowledge Keeper Dr. Kent Ayoungman, Hon. LLD. The term means Spirit Helper, a term used in times of healing with the Blackfoot people.
Along with immediate support to the students, a gift from an anonymous donor will also help integrate critical activities into the nursing program to address the Truth and Reconciliation Calls To Action. At UCalgary, students, faculty, and staff will continue to benefit from the opportunities provided to learn about cultural safety and the unique cultural identity of Indigenous people, and to support education around Indigenous culture and history.
Says Baptiste, “Our donors are amazing, and we would not be able to carry out this work without their help.”
Getting to work and making it work
Adds Debbie Smith, “With the establishment of the Iiyikinaami, we have finally reached a place where we are learning from both the western perspective but also, and just as importantly, from the perspectives of the First Peoples of this land.”
In the bigger picture, Smith is confident things are on the right track. “I view this program as a start of something wonderful and I remain optimistic that we will continue to move towards a greater understanding and acknowledgement of the Indigenous ways of the people here in Canada.”
“We still have a lot of work to do and partnerships such as the one formed between UCalgary Faculty of Nursing and OSCC are an important step in moving forward on this in a good way.”