National Indigenous History Month – A Healthcare Perspective

Brenda Stade, Nurse Practitioner, PhD

When I reflect on Indigenous History Month, it’s hard not to do that through a healthcare lens. 

I’m a nurse practitioner who practiced for many years at major hospitals in downtown Toronto. I have Ojibway and Cree heritage. My professional specialty, my Master’s degree, and PhD all focus on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Taken together, over three decades, my experience has given me a firsthand perspective on racial and social determinants of health, particularly for Indigenous people.

Alongside my full-time job on the clinical team at Think Research, I try to carve out as much time as I can to spend in First Nations communities in Ontario, working with the amazing health teams and Indigenous FASD workers there to diagnose the disorder in children and help make sure they are getting the support and help they need.

There is a lack of diagnostic services available to many Indigenous communities, but there are strong leaders in these communities who want to ensure their children get the services they need. I am always honoured to be invited up to the communities or urban centers to attempt to help the children and their families.

According to FASD ONE, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is the leading known cause of preventable developmental disability among Canadians. It is estimated that FASD affects approximately one per cent of the Canadian population. There is no question that FASD has had a disproportionate impact on some Indigenous communities and Canada’s colonial history played a key role in that health development. 

Of course, FASD is not an exclusively Indigenous issue. That is an ugly stereotype, too often reinforced. In reality, the disorder is prevalent in all ethnic groups. But I find that Indigenous leaders and community workers are very open and transparent about the need for services and supports that may be more readily available in other parts of the country. They are building strong communities, and they are completely dedicated to the welfare of their children. Together, they are also achieving a reduction in the rates of FASD.

The biggest success I see is in children who are diagnosed with FASD who get more services. It’s wonderful to hear that a young child has received extra help in school after a diagnosis, and the family is attending workshops or support groups run by local Indigenous workers. To help a child or youth understand they are not “stupid” or “bad” (inappropriate labels that are sadly much too common relative to this disorder) but may learn a different way, or may respond to situations impulsively because of the disorder, is a very important success. 

I don’t want any Indigenous children to go without these supports simply because of who they are or where they live. This is one specific area of expertise where I can help contribute, and I feel compelled to do that. There is much work to do to ensure that our Indigenous communities receive equitable healthcare across the board.

National Indigenous History Month was designated to honour the history, heritage and diversity of Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is also meant to provide a chance for all of us to recognize the strength of our Indigenous communities today. There is no question that strength includes overcoming adversity, in many forms. I celebrate the unique history of my own ancestors and all Indigenous people knowing the oppression they have dealt with, and the resilience and strength they must use every day, to build stronger and healthier communities.