Before starting her day as a nurse educator, Leanne Poitras-Kelly centres herself with morning exercise and — of course — coffee.
If she goes for a walk, she’ll be listening to her favourite podcast about Métis culture, Paykiiwikay, she tells IndigiNews.
Every work day is different for the multitasking registered nurse, who has been working as an assistant teaching professor since 2007 — meaning she both teaches and practices nursing.
Sometimes she is on campus at University of Victoria (UVic) — where she teaches in the School of Nursing — and still maintains community practice. She’s also working on her PhD in Social Dimensions of Health.
She explains her area of study, “exploring the resistance and advancement of anti-racism education for undergraduate nursing students and its application for nursing practice, with a particular focus on Indigenous-specific racism.”
Coast Salish territory
Poitras-Kelly is Cree-Métis from the Qu’appelle Valley in Saskatchewan. She moved to Coast Salish territory 26 years ago, and currently lives on Stz’uminus territory.
She has been a community health nurse for 26 years, with Cowichan Tribes and other Coast Salish communities on Vancouver Island. She raised her sons on these lands, while working for the Quw’utsun peoples of the Cowichan Valley.
She brings those relationships with her into her teaching — and acknowledges that her work rests on a foundation of teachings she has received from Coast Salish people about how to be and walk on the land.
She’s been at UVic since 2017, she says, and has had several roles including creating courses and teaching online that enabled nurses with a diploma to ladder into a nursing degree from all over the country.
“So much of my role at UVic in the school is about honoring those connections that I have with Coast Salish communities here and trying to elevate the community visibility in our program,” Poitras-Kelly shares.
“To have students engage in nursing with those communities in a strength-based way, not as a voyeur, but as a co-learner — trying to shift the way nurses walk in the community… I’m really in debt to honor those relationships.”
Poitras-Kelly describes a current movement towards “Indigenizing” curriculum, and the shift in how Indigenous issues are taught within her program.
In the past, she says, the curriculum would attempt to teach “Indigenous History 101.”
“Trying to tell people about the history of colonization … was the main focus,” Poitras-Kelly says. “Nobody knew anything about the Indian Act, residential school, or Indian hospitals.”
In the past five years, that has changed to be more about the application of social justice and equity within nursing with the Indigenous population, she explains.
She says she’s finding students are coming with a greater sense of understanding, enabling the conversation to pivot toward society’s accountability.
“We talk about that colonization piece sort of as a jumping off point,” she says.
“Then the real work comes in trying to understand, ‘OK, what does this mean to me?’ And so that can be the focus of our education now is trying to understand this complex settler-Indigenous relationship — and that involves unpacking racism and privilege.”
Poitras-Kelly explores the intersection of being Indigenous, Canadian, and shared history. Through making that relationship visible, Poitras Kelly shifts students away from thinking, as she puts it, “it’s an Indigenous issue, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
She supports students’ learning through stages of uncertainty, until they start to learn how to take this information in and develop it and move into their nursing roles in an informed way, she says.
It’s important for nursing students to learn about social determinants of health for all populations, Poitras-Kelly says.
She goes beyond that, and works with them to learn about “specific things that are experienced by Indigenous people because of policies and boundaries of the Indian Act, and reserve life.
“This truth-telling is not yet done. In terms of us survivors being able to name racism and speak of it without running and hiding in a closet,” she says. “We all have to get used to speaking about the hard topics.”
Poitras-Kelly recalls her early years as a young nurse working in Saskatoon, and overhearing other medical staff saying racist remarks about an Indigenous patient, and how small that made her feel.
“There are still people who feel that, and experience that,” she says. “And, you know, they have varying amounts of strength at different times — when we feel brave enough or safe enough or powerful enough to be able to step in.”
This past year during the ongoing pandemic has seen many stories of systemic racism in health such as the documented death of Joyce Echaquan.
Poitras-Kelly speaks of how devastating that tragedy felt — profoundly upsetting to her as an Indigenous woman, nurse and teacher. She says it’s heightened by the awareness that it was one of many, over the years.
“Really painful Indigenous issues like this … have to be balanced with strength and resilience and strategies, because if we only focus on the heartbreak, it will break us,” she says.
“And so you pace it and make it analytical and put it in a position where students can approach it.
“Right now, suddenly we’ve been given this open window to start talking about it, whereas even five years ago, you still couldn’t get that conversation going.”
When Poitras-Kelly speaks of some of the challenges of the healthcare system being under great stress and strain, she acknowledges that support within the system is few and far between. She says nurses must find a reason for the work from within.
“The most important thing about being a nurse is really coming to terms with knowing who you are,” she says.
“If you don’t, you’ll get caught up in all of the external ways that nurses get validated and a lot of those things don’t last. And so you burn out or get frustrated.”
The search for happiness comes to Poitras-Kelly’s mind when she thinks of validating Indigenous nurses.
“It’s all about having somebody really see you,” she says.
“Having the ability to elevate Indigenous nurses so that we’re seen, that we in turn elevate the people that we work with so that they’re seen. That we can truly see each other.”
Poitras-Kelly weaves in vulnerable populations into this thought, and this is where her own answering the call to justice is clear.
“That is moving towards social justice, to really move towards seeing people as present, alive, and in need of our service, and society’s attention,” she says.
May 10 to 16 is National Nursing Week in Canada, which recognizes the courage and commitment that nurses bring to their work. For Indigenous nurses, this commitment is twofold, as they are also leaders in navigating and transforming colonial systems.