Deb Smith, Old Sun College
Debbie Smith, co-ordinator, Iiyikinaami (Spirit Helper Program), Old Sun College V Strategies

June 20, 2022

UCalgary nursing grad reflects on merging Indigenous and western health-care systems and her own past

Alumna Debbie Smith is the co-ordinator of the newly established Iiyikinaami (Spirit Helper Program)

A deeply rooted sensitivity and concern about the overall health of her people (Siksikaitsitaapi or Siksika), and an understanding that all systems are relevant in health care, has led Debbie Smith, BN’94, to her new role as co-ordinator of Iiyikinaami (Spirit Helper Program), the collaborative new Bachelor of Nursing degree route between Old Sun Community College (OSCC) and the University of Calgary's Faculty of Nursing.

“I view this program as the start of something wonderful,” says Smith, who has worked in First Nations health in various capacities for more than 30 years. “With the establishment of the Iiyikinaami Spirit Helper program, 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.

“History has shown us that the Blackfoot were a strong people who had their own traditional medicines and health-care practices, who had their own governing system, and fortunately, over the years, whose customs, values and traditions have survived historical trauma.”

Old Sun Community College

Old Sun Community College on the Siksika Nation.

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Smith, traditionally known as Apaastaki (“Bridge Woman”), a name given to her by a Siksika Elder, comes from the Siksika Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and has experienced the hardships and challenges as well as the beauty and values of her culture.

“My father served his people for many years as our head chief (Chief Leo Pretty Young Man), so I was exposed to the political landscape and learned early on the many issues faced by First Nations people, including those in the health-care system,” she explains. “I became a painted teepee-holder in my early years when my father transferred one of his teepees to me and my husband. This teepee will be passed down to our (three) children, as is the custom of our people. My celebration of my culture and who I am is shown through my dancing, as a Northern Blackfoot Woman’s Traditional-style dancer, and I am delighted that just recently my two granddaughters have joined me as dancers on the powwow trail.”

Because of her personal journey, Smith reinforces that, throughout the development of Iiyikinaami, it was imperative the perspectives of the Siksika/Indigenous people — why families and clans are so important, the reverence for naming ceremonies, the unique connection to the land, how relationships are viewed — be taken into consideration.  

“During the development and establishment of the Iiyikinaami program, OSCC received excellent help, support and guidance from the Faculty of Nursing staff,” she acknowledges.

There is a growing, mutual understanding between both organizations because we are working toward a common goal — to better the quality of life of all people, including our Indigenous people in Canada.

Smith adds that, even though the program has been in existence for a very short time, OSCC has received tremendous interest from prospective students in the community, as well as interest from the public. The initial Collaboration Agreement in March of 2021 was formally recognized by the Siksika community a year later (on March 16, 2022) through a partnership and naming-recognition ceremony on the Siksika Nation.

“As is the way of our people, as the program was established, and under the encouragement and guidance of our Elders and Knowledge Keepers, the program was provided a traditional Siksika name of Iiyikinaami Spirit Helper.”

The event was also attended by UCalgary staff and members of the community, including Smith’s aunt, Isabel Olivier, the first Siksika nursing graduate, who received her licence in 1962.

Debbie Smith at Naming Ceremony

At the naming ceremony in March 2022 are, from right: Old Sun Community College (OSCC) Board of Governors Chair Kent Ayoungman; OSCC president Dr. Maurice Manyfingers, PhD'10; Debbie Smith, BN'94; UCalgary Nursing dean Dr. Sandra Davidson, PhD; and OSCC students.

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While Smith remains optimistic about this important move forward, she knows there is still much work to be done toward the understanding and acknowledgement of the Indigenous ways of the people in Canada. Her hope remains that these graduates will be part of a broader vision, where the beauty of Siksika/Indigenous culture is an important aspect of the overall health-care system here in Canada.

“Our Siksika students face multiple challenges and obstacles while trying to get an education,” she says. “They have to leave their families, their support systems and their community. But, with this partnership, we now can offer future nursing 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.

“The learning acquired from both these streams will broaden their perspectives, positively affecting their care for not only non-Indigenous patients but with our Indigenous people, as well.”

Smith is grateful to Dr. Maurice Manyfingers, PhD'10, president of OSCC, as well as senior staff members for their support of her role and of their vision for the new partnership.

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, "in a good way," UCalgary is moving toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.