From left to right: Courtney Kohnen, Dr. Russell Gruen, Dr. Bruce Christensen, Dr. Mike Allard, Dr. Stewart Sutherland, Derek K. Thompson – Thlaapkiitup, Elder Shane Pointe – Ti’te-in, Dr. Daniel Tham, Meghan MacGillivray, Amanda Wingett, Dr. Maï Yasué.

Walking the path of reconciliation together

UBC Medicine and the Australian National University sign historic agreement to collaborate on efforts to help improve the health and wellness of Indigenous populations.

Although more than 14,000 kilometres lie between Canada and Australia, the two countries share an enduring colonial legacy that continues to impact the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people on both sides of the Pacific.

Now, in a first-of-its-kind agreement, the UBC Faculty of Medicine and Australian National University (ANU) College of Health and Medicine are bridging this geographic divide with a commitment to working together on efforts related to Indigenous medical education, health and wellness research, and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

The historic Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by Dr. Dermot Kelleher, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-President, Health at UBC, and Dr. Russell Gruen, Dean of the College of Health and Medicine at ANU, at a ceremony in Vancouver, British Columbia on June 11.

“This MOU gives me much hope as it signifies our shared determination to work together, across continents, to improve health outcomes of Indigenous peoples, to honour their traditions and to respect their rights,” said Dr. Kelleher. “It is incumbent upon us as academic medical institutions to redress past and ongoing wrongs. This agreement promises to bring us closer to that goal by strengthening collaboration, knowledge exchange and action.”

“We have an obligation to right the wrongs of the past and restore the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people in everything we do…”

Dr. Russell Gruen

The MOU builds on work being undertaken at both institutions to promote Indigenous health and create lasting change through education and research. UBC and ANU have increasingly been sharing learnings from these activities, and most recently in October 2023, ANU welcomed a UBC Faculty of Medicine delegation to participate in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander International Symposium, as well as in the LIME Connection X Conference focused on decolonizing education.

For Dr. Gruen, the MOU not only formalizes the growing relationship between the two world-leading institutions, but will encourage even closer ties and cooperation.

“This agreement is the culmination of a number of extraordinary visits preceding today that have brought us closer together and shown how aligned we are in our commitments,” said Dr. Gruen. “We have an obligation to right the wrongs of the past and restore the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people in everything we do, and we do so by walking together, learning together and joining hands.”

The MOU outlines several key areas of intended collaboration, including Indigenous medical education, as both institutions work to decolonize and indigenize their curricula, and to attract, retain and train more Indigenous students.

UBC and ANU will also work together on Indigenous health research, with an initial focus on Indigenous mindfulness practices and how drone technology can improve delivery and access to medical supplies for rural, remote and Indigenous communities. They will further explore opportunities to collaborate and share knowledge on the education and development of staff and faculty, creating culturally safe learning environments that are free of racism and discrimination, and advancing reconciliation.

After the signing, Dr. Stewart Sutherland, a Wiradjuri man from New South Wales, Australia, and Associate Dean First Nations at the ANU College of Health and Medicine, presented Dr. Kelleher with a hand carved shield engraved with the date of the MOU singing. The shield was made by artist Byamee Williams of the Ngunnawal & Wiradjuri Nations of Australia.

“Thank you to the team at UBC for hosting us. In our culture you don’t just take, you always give, and so today I would like to present the university and faculty with this shield,” said Dr. Sutherland.

Dr. Mike Allard, who recently stepped down from his five-year tenure as Vice Dean, Health Engagement with the UBC Faculty of Medicine, returned the gesture by gifting each member of the ANU delegation with a porcelain dish featuring a Raven Transforming design by Nuxalk & Nuu-chah-nulth artist Kelly Robinson.

“We’re working toward a common purpose. Indeed, friendship is the key to moving this forward together.”

Dr. Mike Allard

Dr. Allard and his team have been instrumental in forging UBC’s relationship with ANU, while leading the Faculty of Medicine’s action plan and Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Calls to Action, in alignment with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and UBC’s Indigenous Strategic Plan.

“We’re two colonial institutions in two colonial countries, working to learn the truth, accept the truth, and then go beyond to reconcile with Indigenous peoples,” said Dr. Allard. “We have much to learn from each other. This relationship we’re building with our friends at ANU will help enable both of us to do this important work.” 

Shared past, shared challenges

In advance of the MOU signing, representatives from UBC and ANU met for a full-day roundtable discussion at the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) on UBC’s Vancouver campus.

The discussion centered on the work each institution is implementing to strengthen relationships with Indigenous communities and to help improve health outcomes for Indigenous populations, within the context of truth, reconciliation and redress.

Musqueam Elder and Knowledge Keeper Ti’te-in (Sound of Thunder) Shane Pointe opened the proceedings by welcoming the ANU delegation to xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) territory. He spoke to the Musqueam people’s 9,000-year history living on the lands that UBC’s campus now sits on and how the area was traditionally a centre of teaching and education for Musqueam.

Dr. Sutherland thanked Elder Pointe for the warm welcome and expressed his delegation’s gratitude by presenting him with a blanket woven by artists at Purple House, an Indigenous non-profit based in Alice Springs, Australia that delivers dialysis services to remote communities.

Dr. Sutherland has worked in the field of Indigenous mental health for more than 20 years, with a focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of the Stolen Generations, a period in Australia’s history where Aboriginal children were removed from their families through government policies.

For him, gathering at the IRSHDC against the backdrop of an interactive wall displaying a timeline of the residential school system in Canada was a stark reminder of the parallels between the two countries’ histories.  

“We were colonized after Canada, so we’ve been learning from Canada for a long time,” said Dr. Sutherland. “Today, we turn that from a negative to a positive with a new relationship, a just relationship.”

The roundtable was facilitated by Derek K. Thompson – Thlaapkiituup, Director, Indigenous Engagement at the UBC Faculty of Medicine. Derek is from the diitiidʔaaʔtx̣ – Ditidaht First Nation, one of fourteen Nuu-chah-nulth Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where he is a seated and recognized ĉaabať – Hereditary Chief.

Against the backdrop of his family’s ceremonial curtain, painted with visuals depicting their history and story, Derek shared a family song as well as an ancient prayer chant to welcome the group’s ancestors into the space so they could bear witness to and dignify the important discussions.

Before beginning the roundtable discussion, Derek presented each member of the ANU delegation with a cedar hat woven by members of his family. The hats were both a welcome gift to the ANU delegates and a thank you for the generosity they showed members of the Faculty of Medicine when they visited Australia months earlier.  

Elder Pointe spoke to the significance of cedar to their community and explained how the hats are made by twisting two strands of cedar bark together so that they come together and bind. He described that the Musqueam word for friend — siyéy̓u — has its origin in that binding action and reflects the longevity and permanence of those bonds.

“For us, siyéy̓u is the binding of the cedar strands together, and if you take care of this, it is going to go into your family’s future a great distance. And that’s what friendship is to us,” said Elder Pointe.

Later in the day, representatives of both UBC and ANU reflected on Elder Pointe’s words as they signed the MOU and how they resonate with the significance of the moment.

“We’re working toward a common purpose. Indeed, friendship is the key to moving this forward together,” said Dr. Allard.

June 14, 2024