Wanted: First Nations health workers

Marie Martin counts herself lucky. “I’m working my dream job,” said the registered nurse who works at the Kwanlin Dun health…

Marie Martin counts herself lucky.

“I’m working my dream job,” said the registered nurse who works at the Kwanlin Dun health centre.

She stands out as an exception to the rule. There are currently few First Nation health workers in the Yukon.

A new publication aims to change that.

Titled Dream Catcher, the book profiles First Nation health workers across the country, from audiologists and addictions counsellors to social workers and speech pathologists.

Martin is one of the aboriginal role models portrayed in the book. She appeared at the publication’s launch in Yukon College on Tuesday to speak about her experiences.

Like many high school students, as graduation approached she could look forward to nothing more than leaving her parents’ house, she told the college crowd.

“Just like everyone else, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

She left home and became a waitress. Three years later, she realized she wanted to earn more money and to work at a more fulfilling job. She wanted to help people.

So Martin began working as a trainee at the Champagne Aishihik First Nation’s health centre in Haines Junction.

One day she had a realization. She looked at the nurse she worked under, and thought, “I can do your job.”

Then she said it out loud. The nurse agreed, and helped Martin pick out the right school to attend.

Martin grew up in Canyon Creek, population 30.

She attended high school in Haines Junction, which at the time had a population of about 600.

Understandably, the thought of moving to a big city to attend school scared her.

The nurse suggested the Native Nursing Entry Program in Thunder Bay.

The city has a sizeable aboriginal population, and, the nurse said, feels like Whitehorse.

“I thought, OK, I won’t be the only ‘Indian’ there,’” Martin said.

It was a good choice. Professors called her by her first name.

“It felt like family.”

She faced her share of obstacles.

Before entering her program she needed to take more science courses — chemistry and biology — that seemed of little importance in high school.

During Christmas break in the third year of her program, Martin gave birth to her first child.

A week later she was back in class.

“That wasn’t part of the plan,” she said. “But we managed.”

Martin credits her supportive husband and parents for helping her get through school.

She graduated in 2005 and received a job in Whitehorse General Hospital’s surgical ward.

She later moved to the maternity ward, and then transferred to Kwanlin Dun, where she has worked for almost three years.

This spring, she started training to be a manager.

First Nations people need to become more involved in the health-care system to insure their own people receive better treatment, she said.

She’s seen First Nations “treated very poorly” in hospital. Often it’s benign neglect.

Aboriginals are often unfamiliar with how the health-care system works, and are reluctant to assert themselves, she said.

Contrast that to Kwanlin Dun, where aboriginal culture is part of work.

She and her staff go on outings to pick berries, set gopher traps and hunt moose. They hope to offer traditional food to patients soon.

The Dream Catcher manual is supposed to serve the same role for others as Martin’s nursing mentor did for her.

It breaks down what high school courses and post-secondary education are needed for 34 different health careers. It recommends colleges and universities with sizeable aboriginal populations. And it gives a salary range for each career.

The publication should overcome a lot of unnecessary confusion, said Lori Duncan, director of health and social development for Yukon First Nations.

She is also a nurse. Figuring out how to become one isn’t easy, she said.

“It almost takes a degree to find out what to do in this system,” said Duncan.

“If I had this booklet, it would have made it a lot easier for me.”

Dream Catcher was produced with money from the federal government, funneled through the Yukon’s Aboriginal Health Human Resource Initiative.

Copies of Dream Catcher are available at the student services centre of Yukon College.

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