Collecting the stories of traditional healing

Three generations of hands cupped in one another and holding a growing plant in dirt.

Collecting the stories of traditional healing

Brandon University’s Yvonne Boyer is building a research centre to gather knowledge about indigenous health care practices, with the goal of instilling traditional healing knowledge into Canadian health policies
September 24, 2015

Yvonne Boyer was born into a family of healers and healthcare providers. Her aunt was a nurse on a reserve in northern Saskatchewan in the 1960s where the wheezing and coughing brought on by tuberculosis was a constant, percussive force. When she was a child, Boyer says her aunt would share tales of how tuberculosis affected young and old. “These were my bedtime stories,” says Boyer. “How they used to break the ribs of little Indian kids to relieve their symptoms.”

These stories were lodged in the back of Boyer’s mind, and inspired her work to bring better healthcare laws and policies for First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

In 2014, Boyer took a significant step toward that ambition when she was appointed Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Aboriginal Health and Wellness and received funding from the CFI to build and equip the Indigenous Community-Based Health Research Centre (ICHRC) at Brandon University in southern Manitoba.

The centre is meant to be a welcoming space, inviting indigenous people to drop by, sip a cup of tea and share stories of pre-contact health practices. “I’ll be talking to people who will tell me about what their great-grandmother would do when they had a cold,” says Boyer. “It could have been a certain kind of mud plaster on their chest, for example.”

Boyer says Canada’s health policy has historically favoured western medical practices. Moreover, she says there are inequalities in how healthcare is offered to indigenous people living on reserve versus those who live off-reserve, and even more so when compared to the general Canadian population. As an example, she cites a medical device used to regulate breathing during sleep. Boyer says indigenous people are required to submit their machine for servicing on a regular basis because the national healthcare system “doesn’t think they are competent enough to take care of the machine on their own.” In comparison, Boyer says the same system seems to trust the ability of most non-aboriginal people to handle their own health affairs, gear and all.

To level the ground, Boyer will spend the next five to 10 years at the centre, collecting and analyzing stories that demonstrate a strong history and culture of indigenous healthcare practices. This information may be used to influence legal and political frameworks at the federal and provincial level with traditional healing knowledge.

This story was originally published in March 2014.