As her career progressed, from licensed practical nurse to registered nurse while earning two master’s degrees and a PhD, she started working with North Island College to prepare nursing students to be more responsive and open to Indigenous people—marking a change from the system in which she started.
“When I became a nurse, I saw a lot of inequality in the health care system,” she said. “I saw the need for better health care for my people. Our care was not up to par.”
In her role as NIC nursing faculty member and Elder-in-Residence, Voyageur has for more than 15 years prepared nursing students by bringing them to remote Indigenous communities to connect with the people there and better understand the importance of relationship-building.
Now, thanks to a $359,044 research grant from College and Community Social Innovation Fund, announced last fall, the NIC program will build on Voyageur’s work with nursing students at field schools in First Nations communities on Vancouver Island. The CCSIF grants are managed by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), in collaboration with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
The grant for Learning Our Way: Indigenous Community Based Learning Circles for Transformative Reconciliation in Health Professional Education and Practice will allow NIC to partner with several Indigenous communities to expand it beyond nurses to professionals in the rest of the health care system.
“Learning Our Way is teaching the teachings that we First Nations received all through our lives, there to keep us healthy, to keep us balanced in life,” Voyageur said.
With the new grant funding, Learning Our Way will be open to a broader range of health care professionals, beyond nursing students.
It is also increasing the number of Indigenous communities who participate. As an NIC nursing instructor, Joanna Fraser, EdD, has already been working with Indigenous communities on issues such as community responsive nursing services for remote communities. Her work, guided by Evelyn Voyager, has included a longstanding seven-day field school with the Wuikinuxv in Rivers Inlet, as well as the Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k:tles7et'h' First Nations and Huu-ay-aht First Nations. The program is also expanding to include Kwagu'ł in the Fort Rupert area near Port Hardy.
“Those four Indigenous communities have committed to holding field schools with this funding,” Fraser said.
The field schools are directed by the community and how they want nursing students, and now other health professionals, to learn. The approach, in other words, takes the top-down method of educating out of the process.
“It often involves being out on the land. It often involves ceremonies in the big houses. It’s very much about sitting at people’s kitchen tables and having conversations,” she said.
Learning Our Way also means learning from the surrounding environment.
“You just learn by being on the water,” she said. “The land teaches you about vulnerability and the fact you’re in the hands of the community members for your health and safety. It totally turns the tables.”
Both Voyageur and her brother, Paul Willie, a community leader and project research advisor, speak about the importance of strong family connections and culture to their people’s health. Willie recalls being mute through the first five years of life until learning to speak with help from his great uncle (O’gwa) George Henry, who also taught him that life is a journey of self-discovery and that learning is best achieved by adopting a “Learning Mindset-being open to new opportunities and different ways of doing things,” as proposed in the project.
“The importance of programs like Learning Our Way is that when we learn about others, we learn about ourselves,” Willie said. “We have chosen to experience our physicality in these times, to evolve by our experience, the evolution of our spiritual beingness. We must always come from a learning mindset. We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.”
For Voyageur, an important part of the program is for people in the health care system to listen and understand Indigenous communities’ stories, especially about the multi-generational effects of the residential school system.
“Unless you really understand that, you’re not going to do a good job,” she said. “Every place I worked, I used to educate them on how to do a better job. That was my mission in life, and it still is today.”
The project has a three-year timeframe, but Fraser would like to see it become sustainable for the long-term and bring in more Indigenous people’s points of view.
“I know other communities are interested,” she said.