Conference focuses on aboriginal health issues

Developing aboriginal health curriculum is the aim of an interdisciplinary student conference called Building Bridges: Understanding and Supporting Aboriginal Health that will take place at the First Nations House of Learning, Oct 1-3.

The conference, the first of its kind at UBC, has attracted a full house of 60 participants from 12 different faculties.

Residential school experiences, traditional spiritual methods of preventive medicine and the protocol of approaching an elder are some of the topics to be discussed in student-facilitated workshops.

"We wanted to create a learner-centred experience that had relevance to many disciplines," says Cindy Orlaw, president of the Students for Aboriginal Health (SAH), the group co-organizing the conference with the Global Outreach Students' Association (GOSA).

Speakers include Assoc. Prof. Richard Vedan of UBC's School of Social Work and Family Studies who will discuss cross-cultural understanding. Education alumna Shirley Sterling will lead a workshop on caring for oneself using the concept of the medicine wheel that addresses the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual healing aspects.

Other speakers include University of Northern British Columbia Prof. Mary-Ellen Kelm who will speak on the history of aboriginal health in B.C. A panel of elders will offer perspective on the conference and guidance for future aboriginal and non-aborginal health workers.

"TB, poverty and infant mortality are a real concern in many aboriginal communities but often these realities aren't reflected in Canadian health statistics," says GOSA chairperson and second-year medical student Charissa Meakes. "It's important for students in health professions to look at current aboriginal health concerns that have resulted from the last hundred years right here in B.C."

Workshop participants will be organized into groups bearing clan names such as Eagle, Killer Whale and Raven. Information from the sessions will be compiled into resources for aboriginal health curriculum development. Conference organizers aim to develop learning modules that can be incorporated into existing courses in various faculties.

"About one-sixth of B.C.'s population are aboriginal people but there's very little in the existing undergraduate curriculum that prepares students for the health issues and culture they'll encounter when they start working," says Orlaw.

The Building Bridges conference committee, which comprises students from areas such as pharmacy, education and botany also aims to develop a Web site of learning materials and create internships in communities where aboriginal health is an issue.

"Students saw the need for this information -- they're right in the trenches," says James Andrew, co-ordinator of the division of Community Liaison in the Institute for Aboriginal Health and supervisor of the conference project. "Issues that arise in class may not be examined thoroughly because instructors feel they are not an authority. Also, doctors supervising students in rural sites where the majority of patients are aboriginal report that students often don't know how to approach patients because they are unfamiliar with the culture."

The conference is funded by a $50,000 grant from the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund.