A new Indigenous pharmacy association is forging connections in health care


Unreserved49:29Good medicine from two top Indigenous medical professionals

When Jaris Swidrovich entered pharmacy school in 2006, he realized that he was the only Indigenous person in the program — and maybe even the entire field.

“I didn’t see myself represented in the profession anywhere. I don’t recall ever seeing a — visibly identifiable anyway — Indigenous pharmacist going into a pharmacy. No other pharmacy professors,” he told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild.

“I can’t think of a single … textbook or learning material for pharmacy students that was written by Indigenous people.”

At the time, there weren’t any Indigenous pharmacy-related associations in Canada. So last year, the now full-fledged pharmacist and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto started his own.

Swidrovich, a member of the Yellow Quill First Nation, is co-chair of Indigenous Pharmacy Professionals of Canada (IPPC). It was established to help connect Indigenous pharmacy professionals and provide support and information for Indigenous people for pharmacy-related health care in Canada.

The IPPC currently counts about 40 Indigenous pharmacists among its membership including Métis community pharmacist Amy Lamb as its chief executive officer and Gezina Baehr, pharmacist and member of the Songhees First Nation, as its chief operating officer. It’s supported by the Canada Pharmacists Association.

In March, the IPPC announced its first scholarship for Indigenous students enrolled in a doctor of pharmacy or pharmacy technician program in Canada. It counts Shoppers Drug Mart and Johnson & Johnson among sponsors helping fund the scholarship.

“We want students and folks, anyone who’s considering pharmacy, regardless of age, to just see themselves reflected in this discipline,” said Swidrovich, who is of Salteaux and Ukrainian ancestry.

A man smiles standing in front of a building outside.
Dr. Alika Lafontaine is the president of the Canadian Medical Association. (Submitted by the Canadian Medical Association)

More Indigenous people are making their place in Canada’s health-care system from the top down to the grassroots. In the process, they hope to navigate and confront a legacy of systemic racism that exists within the field.

“We are starting to take our place — not only within our communities, but also in institutions that have to work with our communities, that our communities need to lean on,” said Dr. Alika Lafontaine, outgoing president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and the association’s first Indigenous leader.

Lafontaine is an anesthesiologist in Grande Prairie, Alta. He is from Treaty 4 territory in southern Saskatchewan, and is of Cree, Anishinaabe, Métis and Pacific Islander ancestry.

“Because that’s part of the infrastructure, the fabric of this country we’re in.”

Isolation in the field

Swidrovich spoke to Indigenous pharmacy students and graduates for his PhD dissertation. While they all had unique stories, “one of the biggest themes” connecting them all was isolation and a lack of community, he said.

“Wherever we existed in the pharmacy profession across the country, we were always the only one,” he said.

“Nearly every participant in my study, the first time they ever spoke to another Indigenous pharmacist was during the study.”

Sometimes, he said, an Indigenous student may not feel comfortable disclosing their background, especially if they’re white-passing enough for no one else to ask about it.

Small bottles of COVID vaccine are seen lined up inside a pharmacy, as a pharmacist in the background draws a dose while wearing protective gloves and a mask.
A pharmacist draws up a dose of COVID-19 vaccine on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

“I didn’t want to make it widely known as a student, because it invites racism at times, of [for example], ‘Oh, right, we have education equity spots in the college. That’s probably how you got in,'” he said of his own experience.

Lafontaine knows all too well how a network connecting Indigenous people in the field can be a critical advantage.

He credits many Indigenous educators, experts and mentors for helping him through his career leading up to his position leading the CMA; without them, he said he may have considered quitting along the way.

“It’s almost permission that you give other folks that you talk to, to realize that there’s something special about what you’re able to achieve with the support of all the people in your life,” he said.

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Decolonizing pharmacy and medicine

Swidrovich says much of the IPPC’s work involves advocating for wider recognition of Indigenous medicine, which may have existed for thousands of years, but are often dismissed by Western experts.

“Something that I’ve looked at frequently is what evidence is, well, first considered evidence. And then once it’s considered evidence, which of that evidence gets put into something like clinical practice guidelines,” he said.

Critically, that recognition decides whether a given treatment is paid for by health-care coverage or not.

“We see coverage for things like dentistry, prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, even things like massage and acupuncture. But I have yet to see any [public or private] insurance plans … that will cover an offering to take to a sweat lodge or to pay an elder to come into your home,” he said.

An Indigenous man stands outside looking to the left.
Jaris Swidrovich uses his position as chair of the Indigenous Pharmacy Professionals of Canada to make room for Indigenous ways of teaching and healing. (Submitted by Jaris Swidrovich)

Sometimes, Swidrovich said, pharmacists can blend conventional and Indigenous practices — such as practising smudging for your medication.

“You might want to open up all of your prescription pill vials or your blister pack of medications, for example, and smudge over those and … pray for your health and wellness, and for these medicines and medications to not have harmful interactions with other substances like food or other medication,” he said.

He pointed to the All Nations’ Healing Hospital in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., for offering traditional Indigenous and Western prescription medicine, in addition to other health-care services.

But he also noted other clinics that while not offering specific Indigenous services, are Indigenous-owned or have staff that have “a very excellent understanding of the Indigenous community” they serve.

The IPPC’s progress is just part of the incremental changes Indigenous people in the health-care system are seeing — and making. But Lafontaine says the change he’s been a part of doesn’t mean it’s “mission accomplished,” even as he nears the end of his term as CMA president.

“Things are changing, probably not fast enough for folks who can’t get access to care. Not fast enough for people who have been harmed or continue to be racialized. But change is moving forward. That I do know.”

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