Remembering the past, and planning for the future of the Cree Health Board

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To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) held its regional general assembly in Waswanipi April 10-12, under the theme “Working Together Towards a Healthy Future”.

Key delegates from within the organization, as well as Eeyou Istchee community leaders, were all invited to take part in the three-day event at Waswanipi’s spacious Community Health and Fitness Centre, with a view to commemorate the CBHSSJB’s long history, while also creating new partnerships and strengthening existing ties.

The event kicked off with a drumming song by Erika Eagle, followed by opening remarks from local Board representative Jonathan Sutherland, Waswanipi Chief Marcel Happyjack, Grand Chief Abel Bosum and CBHSSJB Chairperson Bella Petawabano.

Bosum highlighted the recent adoption by Parliament of Bill C-70, which ensures a more comprehensive Cree governance of land resources as outlined under the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA).

The CBHSSJB also presented its 2016-2021 Strategic Regional Plan (SRP), whose stated aim is “to achieve Nishiiyuu Miyupimaatisiiun together”. Along with continuing efforts to support youth and Elders, the SRP targets chronic ailments such as diabetes, depression and substance abuse.

Executive Director Daniel St-Amour outlined the document’s focus areas, which will guide all activities undertaken by the different branches of the CBHSSJB over the next five years. The priorities contained in the SRP were established at the last General Assembly in April 2016, and Petawabano stressed the importance of using a Cree voting method as part of the prioritization process.

“We wanted this latest SRP to be the people’s plan,” she said. “We wanted the people to be the ones to say what the priorities are. We did it that way because we believe the communities know best. They know their people; they know what’s happening. So we wanted to give them that ownership, to give them a say in what happens to their health.”

“One of the complaints in the past was that we were kind of playing Big Brother,” echoed St-Amour. “We were saying we wanted to build partnerships, but we weren’t following through and responding to local concerns.”

With that spirit of inclusiveness in mind, attendees were invited to participate in so-called “open space” sessions in order to provide the board with a clearer picture of what people in the communities need and want.

Organizer Sol Awashish explained the open-space system: “Our idea was to bring people together who are leaders in the communities, managerial directors in the Cree organizations, and talk about how to work together to improve the lives and health of our people. It’s an opportunity for people to discuss and give ideas about what they think, what contributions they can bring to making the Cree Nation a healthier and a stronger one. It’s all about dialogue, talking together, and contributing.”

Overall, the 2016-2021 SRP aims to bring more services and facilities back to Eeyou Istchee territory, as first outlined in the JBNQA.

“As Cree people,” said Petawabano, “we have to acknowledge the resources we have within our territory. It’s what the Elders have been telling us all along: healing comes from the land.”

Former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash spoke about the work being done in that regard, and expressed hope that such programs might have a permanent place in the future operations of the CBHSSJB.

“The mainstream system with doctors and other professionals is always going to be there,” Mukash said. “But we can couple that with a traditional system of healing, and have a system where we can use traditional medicines and practices that our ancestors have always used, along with the current health system that we have.”

Part of the land-based healing effort also includes the development of locally-offered traditional Waapimaausuwin midwife services, in order to increase the number of women giving birth within their communities, rather than travelling south to urban areas to receive care.

Furthermore, with a view to continuing the CBHSSJB’s mandate as an organization by and for the Cree people, part of the strategy for the upcoming years includes a succession plan specifically tailored to attracting and preserving Cree human resources in key managerial positions.

“We wanted to have more Cree managers,” said Petawabano. “We wanted to make an investment in the employees that we have in the organization, for the people that want to continue to make a career out of working for the Cree Health Board. And we also wanted to know what people would need in order to do their jobs well.”

To that effect, the CBHSSJB offers resources for employees seeking to obtain qualifications that would allow upward mobility within the organization. It also gives employees work experience by having them sit in for directors who are on vacation or parental leave.

For Petawabano – who studied to become a social worker at McGill University after having already accumulated many years of experience in the field – cultivating a Native workforce requires communicating with young people about the wide range of professional opportunities that are available.

“When I was a child I didn’t know much about what jobs were available in the health sector because I was 10 years old and I was living with my parents in the bush,” she said. “I was literally taken out of the bush and put into residential school at the age of 10. So what did I know about professions? I knew the Hudson’s Bay manager, I knew the priest in the community, I knew the only nurse who was there, the teacher, the pilot, and people would refer to the mechanic, and that was it. That was my exposure.”

In following years, Petawabano began to see more Cree people in management positions.

“But there are some areas where we still have to do a lot of capacity building – in the professional fields, such as nurses, doctors, social workers, psychologists,” she noted.

The CBHSSJB is seeking to coordinate with other entities and other levels of government, in order to provide a more holistic approach to health services.

“When we talk about Miyupimaatisiiun,” said Awashish, “we are talking about all health and social factors that come to effect in it: housing, economics, fiscal health, mental health, spiritual health, emotional health, all factors that lead to people being healthy and living a balanced life.”

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