It took Heather Johnson two degrees and years of globetrotting before she realized she wanted to become a nurse. Now, 13 years after graduating from nursing school in Kamloops, B.C., the Whitehorse resident is being honoured with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
When she heard the news about a month ago, she “was totally surprised, gobsmacked almost,” Johnson said.
“I felt very honoured because it was my peers that chose me. I was nominated by a nurse who I have admired ever since I was a new grad, Cathy Bradbury.”
“We knew they were looking for nominations, and over several weeks I never thought of anyone more deserving,” said Bradbury, who teaches nursing at Yukon College. “Her passion for the marginalized population, she’s someone who doesn’t see a concern without acting on it.”
Johnson was chosen in part because of her extensive work with homeless people in Whitehorse. She did her final nursing practicum here, and fell in love with the city.
Since arriving in the Yukon a decade ago, Johnson has held just about every nursing job the territory has to offer, including at Whitehorse General Hospital and as an outreach worker in the communities. She spends most of her time working with the Yukon Home Care Program, but has also been heavily involved with the Kwanlin Dun First Nation and the outreach van and helped get the Salvation Army’s outreach clinic up and running.
“I still work with the van once a week, and I love it. I love working with street-involved people. There’s a coalition of people who come together to staff the van, and I love everyone I work with. It’s really neat to work with people from different organizations,” she said.
Work in the North appeals to her because she gets to do it all, she said.
“We can really use a lot of different skills up here (in the Yukon). We’re not pigeonholed into one specialty, we really get to be generalists,” Johnson said.
Before going into nursing,
Johnson studied political science and philosophy. She also travelled the world, spending a lot of her time in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.
“I think I’m more driven to create change because of those backgrounds,” Johnson said.
She chose nursing because she wanted to continue to travel and make a difference, but the more she looked into work in the North, the more she realized there was a need here as well that she wanted to fill.
That broad base of experience has also given Johnson a unique insight into the challenges facing homeless people in Whitehorse.
The biggest challenge, she said, is finding adequate housing.
“It’s huge, for the hard-to-house. We have a shelter, but there’s only so many beds there. There’s no supportive living here. Some places in the country have Housing First projects where people are given a small amount of alcohol to help maintain and stabilize them. I’d love to see something like that up here.”
While she’s seen a lot of hardship in her line of work, Johnson also sees a lot of hope.
“I’ve seen people get off IV drugs and go on to help support other people. I just really love the populations I work with. They have so many amazing stories to tell,” Johnson said.
She will receive her award at a ceremony in Ottawa on March 5.
The Diamond Jubilee medals are being given out to 60,000 Canadians this year to mark the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne.
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