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Indigenous students lead the way in new McGill course on Indigenous health care

Sidney Leggett said she's hoping the new course on Indigenous health she helped create will attract more Indigenous students to the field of epidemiology.   (Matt D'Amours/CBC - image credit)
Sidney Leggett said she's hoping the new course on Indigenous health she helped create will attract more Indigenous students to the field of epidemiology. (Matt D'Amours/CBC - image credit)

A new course at McGill University is putting a spotlight on Indigenous health care, and Indigenous students are the driving forces behind it.

The course, called "Indigenous Worldviews in Health Delivery and Research," debuted this fall. It's available to graduate students at the School of Population and Global Health (SPGH), which is part of McGill's faculty of medicine and health sciences.

The key role Indigenous students play in shaping this program makes it a first among all Canadian universities, according to McGill. Indigenous staff and faculty also played a role in shaping the new course.

It examines the effects of colonialism on Indigenous communities, specifically as it pertains to their experiences in hospitals. The case of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who recorded herself moments before her 2020 death as hospital staff hurled racist insults at her, is among those being explored. It also looks as Indigenous health research ethics.

The course's co-creator, Sidney Leggett, a master's student who is Métis, said the push to create this course began a year ago when students noticed a gap in what they were learning. Students eligible for the course are enrolled in programs that allow them to work in fields such as public health, occupational health, biostatistics and epidemiology.

Anglena Sarwar, a master's student at McGill, is one of the first students to enroll in the "Indigenous World Views in Health Delivery and Research" course.
Anglena Sarwar, a master's student at McGill, is one of the first students to enroll in the "Indigenous World Views in Health Delivery and Research" course.

Anglena Sarwar, a master's student at McGill, is one of the first students to enrol in the 'Indigenous Worldviews in Health Delivery and Research' course. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

"For either an epidemiologist or a public health expert, you're generally going to be in some kind of policy-making role and making policy in Canada means that you're making policy that affects Indigenous people," said Leggett.

"Students just felt that they were going through all these methods courses, intensive courses and were kind of missing that piece."

It was important to "Indigenize" the curriculum, according to Anyana Banerjee, an assistant professor at McGill and the SPGH's lead on equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism.

She said being able to grasp the history and current realities surrounding Indigenous health gives graduates — regardless of their background — the tools to break the cycle of discrimination in health care.

Anglena Sarwar, who is working to get a master's degree in public health, says she's passionate about equity and social justice and felt this class was a perfect fit.

She says she's learned a lot in just a few a weeks — enough to realize that wrapping her head around the realities of Indigenous health care is a process that will continue well past this semester.

"It's going to be a continuous process throughout my life. I'm never going to have all the right answers," Sarwar said.

Students who participate in the new course are enrolled in programs that allow them to eventually work in fields like public health, epidemiology and biostatistics.
Students who participate in the new course are enrolled in programs that allow them to eventually work in fields like public health, epidemiology and biostatistics.

Students who participate in the new course are enrolled in programs that allow them to eventually work in fields like public health, epidemiology and biostatistics. (Mat D'Amours/CBC)

"No matter what, I'm going to be a learner. It doesn't matter if I have my master's. I'm going to be working with communities, people who have better knowledge than me."

The course isn't mandatory, though that could change in the future.

Leggett hopes it contributes to having more Indigenous students choosing fields like epidemiology.

"At the end of the day, that will be the strongest baseline in Canada to build a successful equity and policy-making foundation," Leggett said. "It's to have Indigenous people in the room."