Dalhousie University reserving 40 nursing seats for Indigenous, Black students

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Dr. Ruth Martin-Misener, director of Dalhousie University's School of Nursing, says the university hopes to create a more diverse workforce. (Getty Images - image credit)
Dr. Ruth Martin-Misener, director of Dalhousie University's School of Nursing, says the university hopes to create a more diverse workforce. (Getty Images - image credit)

Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University says it is setting aside 40 seats in its nursing program for Indigenous and Black students as part of its effort to help make the health-care workforce more diverse.

The designated seats for the bachelor of science nursing program will be available for the 2022-23 academic year and priority will be given to Mi'kmaw and Black students from Nova Scotia.

Dr. Ruth Martin-Misener, director of the university's school of nursing, said recruiting and retaining more diverse nursing students is a priority for the university.

She said the school has failed so far to "move the needle forward" in terms of increasing recruitment from those two groups.

"We know that there have been some difficulties and challenges in our history that need to be rectified, and one of the things that we need to do is to have a more diverse workforce to meet the health-care needs of the population," said Martin-Misener.

"Patients often feel more comfortable when they are receiving care from people who they know have an understanding of their own context and have come from their own history, their own background."

Dawn Googoo, a registered Mi'kmaw nurse and master of nursing student at Dalhousie, said while the new priority seats are an important step toward equitability, they are just one piece of the puzzle.

Dawn Googoo
Dawn Googoo

Googoo, who is the lead for the school's L'nu Nurse Initiative, said it's important to implement and maintain additional supports for Indigenous students in particular, so that they feel safe once they arrive at the school.

She described her own experience of leaving her Cape Breton community of We'koqma'q First Nation to become a nurse, and the challenges and systemic racism she faced.

Googoo said when the plight of her people — such as chronic illness — was discussed, the root causes of the issues were never part of the conversation.

"When you're an Indigenous person sitting in a classroom and hearing all these negative things about your people … you start feeling like there's a light on you and you don't feel like a student anymore and you just want to go back home," said Googoo.

"There's a lot of stress, there's a lot of emotion, and there's a lot of expectation. You're calling home and you're upset and you feel unwelcome."

A 'home away from home'

Googoo now works with Indigenous nursing students to answer questions and help make them feel comfortable on campus — ensuring they know they have someone from their own background they can confide in.

"They're stronger. They connect better. They have pride in who they are," said Googoo, who has a dedicated office students can visit she calls a "home away from home."

Dr. Margot Latimer, the school's research chair in Indigenous Health Nursing, said Googoo's work is helping to make Indigenous students feel more welcome at the school, but more needs to be done.

Latimer, who is not Indigenous but has been working with the community for 14 years, said curricula need to become more inclusive, and she would also like to see a Mi'kmaw or Indigenous person on the faculty of nursing.

She noted universities are colonial institutions, and there is still a great deal of distrust within the Indigenous community.

"We have to look at things in a completely different way and release the control. We need to get out of the way and put Indigenous people in these roles," said Latimer.

"It's not because people in the university don't want it to happen. I think this is a really key point — they want it to happen. They want to create change. But without the involvement of the community … they don't know how to create change."

Black nurse encouraged by seats

Latimer said her position and Googoo's are currently only being funded until 2024, and the university needs to plan ahead so those resources continue.

Courtney Oliver was accepted into Dalhousie's nursing program a number of years ago through a designated seat for African Nova Scotians. She said she may not have had the opportunity without having identified as Black, given the high degree of competitiveness of the program.

She said she is encouraged to see the number of priority seats for Black students rising, given the current lack of representation in health care.

Oliver, originally from Upper Hammonds Plains, N.S., said fewer than 10 of her classmates were Black when she graduated from the program in 2014.

"We need more representation and we need more diversity, especially given the history of Black nurses," said Oliver. "There was a time we were denied entry because of the colour of our skin."

School hiring 2 recruiters

There are 225 nursing seats in total between Dalhousie's Halifax and Yarmouth campuses.

Martin-Misener said the 40 seats will be held until the final stage of recruiting, at which point they will open up to non-Indigenous and non-Black students.

She said the nursing program receives many applicants each year, so the reservation of the seats will ensure prospective Indigenous and Black students have time to make a decision and apply to the program.

Martin-Misener said there are a number of efforts underway to try to fill the seats, noting other programs at Dalhousie that have an explicit mandate to recruit Indigenous and Black students generally.

She added that the nursing school is currently advertising for two student advisor positions with a mandate to help recruit and retain Indigenous and Black students.

Elsewhere in the province, Cape Breton University has 40 seats reserved for Indigenous and Black applicants to its nursing program, which offers 141 seats in total.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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