Leadership Insights by Dr. Shannon Waters

I was one of three Indigenous Public Health and Preventive Medicine Specialists across the country when I graduated. I was recruited into a federal government position that I was offered before even finishing my residency.

My Indigenous colleague who held a similar role in the department and I were celebrated; however; decolonizing the health system is impossible when you are the “Token Indian” on a committee or task group.

As I have gained experience in my career, I have become more comfortable and adept at adding my voice and Indigenous perspective to important conversations about protecting and promoting our collective well-being. With the Truth and Reconciliation Report Commission report release (2015) and the adoption of the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2016), my contribution is being sought out more regularly, but I have yet to see it meaningfully impact the health system.

The urgency of climate disruption and biodiversity collapse has prompted many to seek out Indigenous individuals or communities to ask for advice and gain knowledge on sustainable practices. I attended the Livable Cities Forum in Victoria last month, which focused on resilient communities in a time of climate change, and many breakout sessions included Indigenous voices and examples of approaches in Indigenous communities. This inclusion is increasingly expected and incorporated into conversations around our changing environment although almost universally a sidebar instead of integral to the overall process.


Moving Beyond the “Token Indian” | Amplify insights


A decade has passed since I started my role with the federal government, and I have worked with various organizations during that time, including a First Nations organization, the provincial government, and now a regional health authority. I have experienced and been part of momentous change, the tripartite work of First Nations, the federal government, and the provincial government in BC being a strong example of collaboration.

Work is now well underway in addressing health at a systems level; however, transformation cannot happen while the 'western academic' system is indoctrinated as the gold standard. Evolving epistemology requires concerted effort and takes time - sometimes generations - to occur.

I attended the International Joint Commission (IJC) on Transboundary Waters in Ottawa last month as I sit on their Health Professionals Advisory Board. This Commission has been in place for over 100 years to help resolve issues related to water levels and flows, water quality, and more recently climate change. Canada and the United States each appoint three of six commissioners, and for the first time since its inception, an Indigenous person is in a commissioner role. My daughter and I had the honour of meeting Dr. Henry Lickers, a Haudenosaunee citizen of the Seneca Nation who is an Environmental Science Officer for the Mohawk Council, has led research projects in the Great Lakes environment and led various boards throughout his career. Dr. Lickers sits at the pinnacle of the IJC as a commissioner. 100 years for an Indigenous person to be integral to the process.

We do not have another century. Leadership must be transformed in just 14 months to enact the “decisive, political steps” needed for a 45% reduction in our carbon emissions by 2030. We have numerous examples of collaborative work but at a systems level this has almost exclusively been Indigenous voices and perspectives weaving into a “western”, non-Indigenous world.

Climate change - as our greatest threat to global health - is drawing us beyond collaboration into, as a dear mentor and friend calls it, the realm of co-creation.

The urgency of our time is compelling us to stop working within the contexts of each other and instead create a new context together.

Barriers, such as fear, envy and scarcity can be transformed to activate momentum in creating this new world. I am preparing myself, sitting with my trepidation – which is turning into anticipation - for the next steps on this journey, and I know there are many other leaders also preparing to do so.

Shannon Waters is a Public Health + Preventive Medicine Physician, Connector and Hope Builder. In her current leadership role as Medical Health Officer for the Cowichan Valley Region at Island Health Shannon works to bring a voice to not only the health of her community but to Mother Earth.

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  1. Randy Allen on November 30, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    This is awesome. Working together is important.