July 25, 2024

Achieving Academic Outcomes

Enhancing Student Success

New high school program prepares Indigenous youth for health sector | Faculty of Health Sciences

4 min read

Photo: (Left to right) SHSM program students Neveah Wynne, Jewel Chum, Treanna Wynne, and Scarlett Hardisty

Indigenous youth face unique barriers to pursuing a career in the health sciences, but new programs and partnerships in western James Bay aim to help students succeed: by creating educational pathways close to home.

High school students in Moose Cree First Nation now have access to a Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program in health and wellness. The SHSM, officially launched at Delores D. Echum Composite School (DDECS) in Moose Factory, Ontario in September 2023, also helps set the stage locally for a post-secondary program to train health professionals being developed by Queen’s Health Sciences and the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA).

The new educational opportunity will inspire students to seek professional health care careers in their community, explains Don Cheechoo, principal at DDECS, noting the program is culturally responsive and community centred.

“We want to support students’ career aspirations, and the program’s holistic approach is essential for the pursuit of health equity and well-being for First Nations,” he says. “Having more local people invested in and caring for their community as doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and decisionmakers will have a positive impact on health transformation in the region.”

The SHSM program is the first to be offered at a First Nation school in this province. Developed in partnership between DDECS, Moose Cree Education Authority, Limestone District School Board, Queen’s University, and the Ministry of Education, the SHSM program provides students with specialized training and experience in the health and wellness sector – and enables future career and educational pathways.

The SHSM program helps overcome some of the unique challenges that Indigenous youth face in accessing health sciences’ training: geographic isolation, institutional racism, financial inequities, and a lack of access to prerequisite courses. The SHSM program provides students with the entrance prerequisites as well as diverse and enriching educational experiences in health care that provide a strong foundation to pursue higher education and/or a career in numerous areas upon graduation. Students will have the SHSM Health and Wellness designation displayed on their diploma.

The Ministry of Education is supporting delivery of the SHSM program at DDECS.

“Ontario’s government is proud to invest $20,000 to help deliver specialized training to Indigenous students that will support a strong healthcare system in their community,” said Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education. “Ontario’s back-to-basics plan to combine education with hands-on working experience will help students land rewarding careers and good paying jobs in their communities.”

The SHSM program at DDECS incorporates existing land-based learning and traditional culture and language teachings with health and wellness training to provide culturally relevant education and experiences. Students will also earn other relevant certifications like First Aid, CPR, and WHMIS.

Shanna Lesage, the SMSM coordinator at DDECS, says students will take part in a co-operative education course that provides hands-on experiences in the local health and wellness sector. “We will partner with community organizations to help our students access experiential learning opportunities,” she says.

One unique feature of the DDECS program is its attachment to the existing educational and health care partnership between Queen’s Health Sciences and WAHA. These partners will allow the SHSM in Moose Factory to access to sector-relevant experiential learning activities, mentoring experiences, postsecondary education pathways, and community-based employment.

For example, students in the SHSM program will participate in Queen’s WAHA Summer Program at Queen’s campus in Kingston, says Dr. David Taylor, Senior Advisor, Queen’s-WAHA Partnership and Associate Professor, Department of Medicine. As part of that immersive, week-long experience in Kingston, students will develop health care innovation proposals.

“These students are actually going into health care settings and higher education settings to learn – experiences they wouldn’t normally get in the classroom,” he says.

Limestone District School Board (LDSB), which offers a Health and Wellness SHSM program, played a key role in helping DDECS develop their own customized program – from credit structure and experiential learning concepts to online certifications. This collaborative experience gave new insight into their own practices and program development, with the hope of honouring all student lived experiences.

Geoffrey Preznick, SHSM and Skilled Trades Consultant at the LDSB, said the co-learning approach could serve as a model for other school districts. “Ultimately, the SHSM is all about creating opportunities for Indigenous youth and bolstering cultural diversity in the health sector.”

Locally, in the communities of western James Bay, that means helping meet increasing demand for locally trained doctors, nurses, technicians, paramedics, and more.

“The SHSM provides a starting ground for young people to be able to build that capacity within their community,” said Melissa Baker-Cox, Pathways & Equity Consultant, LDSB.

Four high school students are already registered for the SHSM at DDECS and are set to graduate in 2025. Meanwhile, enrollment the Queen’s-Weeneebayko Health Education Program – which will train post-secondary students locally – could start as early as September 2025.

“When our community and our youth see Indigenous people in key health and wellness roles, I think that opens a lot of doors for our children and allows them to succeed,” Lesage says. “Hopefully, down the road, we’ll see a lot more Indigenous representation our health organizations.”


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