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Opinion: Paddling Together – Indigenous health care and the Sunshine Coast

Golden Eagle Rising Society recently submitted a proposal to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) for a Longhouse-style, environmentally friendly cedar building that will house a culturally appropriate and trauma-informed service model

Our Sechelt Hospital, formerly known as St. Mary’s, is approaching its 60th birthday. Many residents of the Coast are aware that the hospital’s establishment in its strategically central location was made possible through the foresight and generosity of shíshálh people. At that time, our Nation contributed 10.6 acres of land for the construction of a hospital to serve the Sunshine Coast; this despite having limited land holdings of our own. Coming from a gifting culture, this act of goodwill is not surprising to me. In the agreement we did however ask for one other item in return for the land: “That the Indians shall always have the privilege of admission.”

Today, the idea of “admission” might seem like an expected outcome, hardly needing mention given the circumstances. However, in the early 1960s, many Indigenous people were sent to notorious Indian Hospitals where they received, if fortunate, substandard care. Unfortunately, they were more likely to face abuse, torture, sterilization, or be subjected to medical and surgical experiments. These were real-life houses of horror worthy of the films we watch to scare ourselves witless. So many did not return and many who did were scarred for life.

I wish I could say that our community was spared from the devastating impact of this history due to the land gift, but that was not the case. While there may have been some improvements, true equality in healthcare was not achieved, and still eludes us. I know this from firsthand experience. In the last 20 years I have logged thousands of volunteer hours doing medical advocacy in hospitals. I can tell you, there are still horror stories, and some from within the walls of Sechelt Hospital. I encourage you to read the “In Plain Sight” report on racism within our medical system for a deeper understanding.

I realize this may sound grim, and I must acknowledge that in my experience, 90 per cent plus of the individuals working in our medical system are compassionate and caring people with genuine love in their hearts. 

Unfortunately, there are a few individuals that continue to cause harm, and whose actions are shielded by a flawed system. 

It takes only one such individual to deter our people from seeking the care they need when they need it. Some of our community members have expressed that they would not enter the hospital even if their life depended on it.

While change is occurring, it is not happening as quickly as we would hope. This is why, until we can ensure our care and safety, for the time being, as a stopgap, we must chart our own path. Golden Eagle Rising Society has been collaborating with shíshálh people for years to develop an Indigenous-led primary care model. We recently submitted a proposal to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) for a Longhouse-style, environmentally friendly cedar building that will house a culturally-appropriate and trauma-informed service model. This model will not only serve our shíshálh community but also provide training opportunities so that we may pollinate teachings in Indigenous care. We have an absolute dream team working on all of this.

What we are requesting from VCH primarily concerns location. We estimate that the building and surrounding gardens will occupy less than one per cent of the land we gifted for the hospital. We wish to have the clinic situated on the hospital campus and have requested this land be set aside. This is important not only for practical reasons but also symbolically, as it represents unity and a new way forward. This would be such a fantastic opportunity to learn from one another. 

We often liken these journeys to voyages in canoes. It’s not by chance that donning the front lobby of Sechelt Hospital is a canoe. Six decades ago, we invited you into our canoe. Now, we are asking you to invite us into yours. Let’s take the necessary steps to paddle forward together in a good way.

For more on this project please feel free to watch the short film that was just released: Also visit Golden Eagle Rising Society’s website:

Shain Jackson is the executive director of Golden Eagle Rising Society, president of Spirit Works Limited, and a member of the shíshálh Nation.