Athabasca U Master of Nursing grad shines light on gaps in Indigenous health care

AU Grad Michelle Monkman has dedicated her career to tackling health inequities.

(ANNews) – 2023 Athabasca University (AU) Master of Nursing grad, Michelle Monkman, has made it a lifelong goal to improve the health of people in Indigenous communities.

Monkman, a registered nurse from Kinosao Sipi Cree Nation, has spent her entire 19-year career serving Indigenous populations in urban and rural Manitoba.

Monkman’s Spirit Name is Owasdenimakiw, which translates to “light giver” or “bringer of light.”

“My Knowledge Keeper told me that it was my purpose to bring light into dark places and insight into places of uncertainty.”

She certainly has.

Bringing light through health care

Monkman and her family live in Brandon, Man., where she is the program lead for SE Health’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis program. In her role, she builds health education, models of care, policies, and procedures for health-care providers so they can better serve Indigenous communities.

By incorporating Indigenous Ways of Knowing into education materials and into the delivery of care, she helps ensure resources and health-care systems are culturally relevant and safe.

“I feel like I have a really important job to elevate the voices of my community and I’ve been given the opportunity through AU to elevate my own voice. I just want health care to be better for people that I love.”

She says her motivation to help runs deep because of her Indigenous identity. She’s improving the lives of families just like hers.

Working in Indigenous health is where I belong and it’s my passion. It doesn’t feel like work. I was answering my passion.”

Finding solutions to Indigenous health care

Monkman explained that part of what drives her is the need for major improvements to Indigenous health care across Canada. That includes ensuring health services are community driven—with improved access to care—plus more funding, and more education for health-care providers and community members.

A few years ago, while working in a First Nations community whose high school was located in a nearby urban area (Brandon), she realized there were three provincially funded high schools that had access to teen clinic services. The local First Nations school, Sioux Valley High School, did not.

Wanting to fix that inequity, she decided to act. Monkman collaborated with the community, the school, regional health authority, and a primary health clinic to begin the work of creating a teen clinic.

“Most Indigenous people will go to access primary health services when there’s a problem and don’t often have family doctors or that connection to health care. I wanted to normalize preventive care for them at a young age.”

Once the clinic launched, Monkman said the services were very successful because they used a community-driven approach.

Changes needed to improve care

Monkman said there needs to be more collaboration across the health sector; provincial health authorities often do not collaborate well with Indigenous communities.

“If you look at rural Indigenous communities across Canada, it’s like their own little health system, so people don’t understand that there are community-based programs and roles that are specific to the needs of that community.”

Many rural First Nations communities often only have access to a health centre that operates during regular daytime business hours.

“If residents are unable to go during that time, they have to travel to another community that is urban based for treatment,” she said.

This barrier to care is why so many Indigenous people face health inequities, and often experience delays accessing care. Her work involves trying to find solutions to close the care gap.

Reconciliation through teaching and learning

Not only is Monkman improving the lives of Indigenous communities by better informing health-care providers, academics, and policy makers, she is also using her knowledge and life experiences to guide settlers and non-Indigenous folks on a path toward reconciliation.

In recognition of all her achievements, Monkman was named Athabasca University’s 2023 Governor General’s Gold Medal winner. The award is given to the AU graduate student with the highest grade-point average in their graduating class.

Monkman said her master’s degree has given her a whole new language to use in influencing higher-level policy and building health service solutions for Indigenous communities nationally. Now, she can blend what she learned in mainstream academia with Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and perspectives.

Being an Indigenous advocate has been isolating at times, and her perspective was not always understood. But she’s always maintained that reconciliation is uncomfortable.

“That’s why it was important that I spoke my truth,” she said. “Reconciliation is everyone’s business.”

Learn more about the Faculty of Health Disciplines at AU.

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