Constance Day Chief (BN ’17, MN ’21) is a change-maker. The Master of Nursing graduate saw a need to change the way nursing curriculum presents Indigenous peoples, which inspired her to focus on the health effects residential schools have on survivors and communities for her final project.
“I’m the daughter of a residential school survivor, so undertaking this project did have a very big emotional toll on my well-being,” says Day Chief. “However, I did feel like this was something that needed to be done to help bring this dark part of Canadian history to light.”
Day Chief, who now works as a plasma nurse for Canadian Blood Services, couldn’t have known it when she began working on her project, but that dismal part of Canada’s history resurfaced with the discovery of thousands of children’s graves at former residential schools across North America.
“I feel non-Indigenous people do not understand the extent of what happened with these schools and what it did to our ways of life and what it took from us,” says Day Chief. “People thought these schools operated a long time ago and that people should just get over it. It is sad and unfortunate that it first took the finding of those 215 buried children in Kamloops for the rest of Canada to understand and feel the heartache that our people have been feeling since the start of those schools.”
Speaking up to address stereotypes in curriculum
Even during her Bachelor of Nursing studies, Day Chief noticed the program's curriculum perpetuated stereotypes which contribute to negative attitudes toward Indigenous people. She recalls a case study in an exercise about providing culturally-safe ermergency room care. The case focused on an intoxicated Indigenous man.
“I immediately spoke up and asked why was it that, whenever the Indigenous population was brought up, there were always addictions or negative behaviour attached to them. How come this Indigenous man could not be presenting with coming to the ER with chest pain or a broken bone? Me speaking up did change the material in that course and for future courses.”
At first, Day Chief wanted to develop Nursing Education in Southern Alberta (NESA) program curriculum about residential schools for her project, but learned that course material was already in progress. Instead, she created a workshop for faculty and instructors to help them understand the new teaching material and how to translate their knowledge in the classroom.
Her goals for the workshop were to build a basic understanding of Indian residential schools, those who operated them and their effect on Indigenous ways of life, including the effects on inter-generational health. She also provided strategies for teaching in a culturally-safe and sensitive way.
A journey of learning, healing and understanding
“I did have a personal connection to the material of my project,” she says. “My own family did not realize the extent of the abuse until after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s investigation. My parent, who attended Indian residential school began to open up about their experiences, but it caused them to relive their traumas. It was a tough time for our family and a learning period for all of us. My brother and I were never taught our Blackfoot language, as there was a fear of us being beaten, as my parent was for speaking their language in school."
"Growing up, we had a strict upbringing and only certain adults were trusted with taking care of us, as our parent did not want us being abused the way they were by the adults who were in charge of taking care of them. Addiction was also present with my parent; it was seen as a way to numb their memories and the emotions of their experiences. Overall, this has been a journey of learning, healing and understanding for our family and it will be ongoing in the future, as it will be for other families and communities.”
The last Canadian residential school closed in 1996, and Day Chief knows her grandfather, who sadly passed away shortly after she began her master’s program, her grandmother, aunts, uncles and other family members also attended these schools. She suspects their stories only scratch the surface of what really happened.
“I think people need to be open to learning what happened to us to fully understand the circumstances we’re in right now in regard to our own health and well-being,” says Day Chief. “We do have a lot of addictions within our community and I feel a lot of that has to do with the traumas that we’ve experienced in these schools. The adults didn’t learn proper parenting skills and that’s why you see a lot of the youth raised by their grandparents instead of their own parents. Our whole well-being has been affected by these schools and I don’t think people fully understand that.”
Advice for the next generation
Overall, Day Chief says she enjoyed a positive experience at uLethbridge and the support of faculty members and her friends and family helped her realize how much she could achieve. And she has a few tips for other up-and-coming change-makers.
“My advice for youth who are going into post-secondary education is to never silence your voice at the risk of making others feel uncomfortable,” says Day Chief. “If you want change to happen, be willing to engage in those uncomfortable situations and conversations.”
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