skip to main content

Indigenous Mental Health

On behalf of Nick Kates, Chair, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioural Neurosciences



As an academic department, we have a unique responsibility towards the Indigenous communities who were the original settlers of Turtle Island (Canada).  Like most of you, I am still learning about and trying to understand the impact on members of Indigenous communities of centuries of systematic colonization, racism, and oppression as evidenced by the residential schools, the 60’s scoop, the murdered and missing Indigenous women, the creation of the Indian hospitals, the forced disconnect between Indigenous peoples and their traditional lands, the stigma that many Indigenous individuals continue to face and the multi-generational impact of the trauma experienced by previous generations.

Like all Canadian institutions, we must not only acknowledge our role in contributing to or perpetuating these problems, but also recognize the opportunity we now have to work with Elders, knowledge holders, and other members of Indigenous communities to better understand these issues and their impact, and the changes we need to make in our programs and services. If we can do this, we can ensure that all Indigenous people are treated with dignity and respect whenever they have contact with any part of the health care system. We also want to make sure all indigenous people have equal and unimpeded access to the culturally safe health, mental health and addiction services they need and want, delivered in conjunction with traditional Indigenous healing approaches, according to the wishes of the individual.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposed 94 Calls to Action (link: Truth and Reconciliation), a number of which are directly relevant to us as an academic health department.  It is the Calls to Action as well as UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – link: UNDRIP) recommendations that will guide our activities as a Department. This means that our first task is to understand the “truths” of the Indigenous experience in Canada and build equal two-way partnerships with Indigenous communities and their members to help us move towards reconciliation. 

For each of us this is a personal as well as a professional journey and I would call upon all members of our Department to consider the role each of you can play. What we are planning is similar to other initiatives taking place across the Faculty, under the leadership of Bernice Downey, but will chart a specific path for Psychiatry.

Over the next two years our plan will be a simple one, with the goals of understanding the Indigenous experience, building partnerships with Indigenous individuals and communities to guide us as we move ahead, and expanding the recruitment of and support for Indigenous learners in our educational programs. Our first step will be to encourage every member of the Department to participate in cultural safety training, and to also have the opportunity to understand more about the Indigenous experience through visits to Woodland Cultural Centre (the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford) and Kayanase – the Longhouse on Six Nations. We have organized two initial visits for groups of up to 50 of our learners and faculty to Kayanase and Woodland - one in June and one in July - and will be arranging further visits during the course of the year. 

We have also reserved 75 seats at each of two upcoming cultural safety-training sessions by the Ontario Indigenous Cultural Safety training program (link: ICS training). Because of the heavy demand, these will also not start until next summer.  Priority for the first session will be given to our residents and other learners, members of department leadership teams and members of our Indigenous Mental Health Planning Committee, and then to all other members of the Department who are interested. The Department will bear the cost of all of these events. While waiting for the ICS training to begin, I would encourage everyone to take the free training offered by Cancer Care Ontario (link: Cancer Care Ontario) which includes a number of modules that are specific to mental health.

At the same time, we will continue to build partnerships with leaders of our local Indigenous communities, other community members, and indigenous healthcare providers and services. This will help us learn about their needs, and how we can best work together to respond to these, and incorporate traditional Indigenous beliefs and practices within the ways that our learners train and that care is delivered, while following the advice of our Indigenous partners. And we will also look at what has worked in other places, that we can learn from or emulate.

Our work will be guided by the core principles of self-determination, decolonization, anti-oppression, anti-racism, fighting stigma and building equal and reciprocal partnerships in all we do, as well as an appreciation of the importance to Indigenous communities of their relationship with the land.

This is an important journey on which we have embarked as a Department and to which I am committed as Chair. I hope that together we can learn from the errors of the past and move into a new era of reconciliation. 

Nick Kates

Faculty of Health Sciences - Indigenous Health Initiative 

© 2018 McMaster University | 1280 Main Street West | Hamilton, Ontario L8S4L8 | 905-525-9140 | Contact Us | Terms of Use & Privacy Policy