From August 18 - 20, 2015, the Aboriginal Affairs Unit of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) held a historic Elder's gathering on the traditional lands of Fort William First Nation. The gathering brought together Aboriginal Elders from First Nations and Métis communities across NOSM's wider campus of Northern Ontario to discuss the future of the School's Council of Elders.
Over the past ten years, the School has developed relationships with more than 20 Elders who each have special gifts for working with community members. NOSM's Council of Elders is comprised of these Aboriginal peoples who possess gifts and significant knowledge of traditional, cultural, and spiritual customs and practices. Each of these gifts, separately or together, is related to maintaining the holistic health of a community. Their knowledge is gained through a full life of learning, experiences, and teachings received from other Elders and traditional people.
Tina Armstrong, NOSM's Director of Aboriginal Affairs, recognized the need to restructure the Council of Elders, reduce the number of Elders formally engaged with the School, and develop a more formal process for determining which Elders would work with NOSM learners, staff, and faculty. "Rather than forming a corporate style working group, we decided it was best to bring the question on how to restructure the Council of Elders to the Elders themselves," explains Armstrong. "We knew we needed to make a change, so we chose the traditional way. We embraced our culture and took the question of how to change the Council of Elders to the spirits for guidance through ceremony."
The three-day gathering began with a traditional feast and a sacred Turtle Lodge Ceremony atop scenic Mt. McKay. The following two days brought the Elders together for facilitated discussions about the purpose, function, and responsibility of NOSM Elders and those on the Elder's Council. Through sharing and discussion, it was decided that the Elder's Council shall be guided in their work by the Seven Grandfather teachings: Nibwaakaawin (wisdom); Zaagi'idiwin (love); Minaadendamowin (respect); Aakode'ewin (bravery); Gwayakwaadiziwin (honesty); Dabaadendiziwin (humility); and, Debwewin (truth).
Going forward, the Council of Elders will be comprised of eight Elders, with four female and four male representatives. Each Elder shall represent one of the cardinal directions of the medicine wheel to ensure the spiritual, cultural, political, and territory of each region is represented. There was much discussion surrounding the gifts that NOSM Elders would each possess, including traditional languages and culture.
"This is a historic first for the Northern Ontario School of Medicine," says Dr. Roger Strasser, NOSM Dean. "The School has actively chosen to engage Elders in decisions over the past ten years. Elders play an extremely important role in the School and provide links to many Aboriginal communities across the North. We are so pleased the Elders chose to attend the Turtle Lodge Ceremony and grateful their guidance in determining the future direction of the School."
NOSM Elders provide support to NOSM's Aboriginal learners; provide cultural teachings to students, staff, and faculty; offer traditional ceremonies and blessings; ensure Aboriginal medical students are recruited to the School; review applications for Aboriginal applicants to the School; participate in quarterly meetings of the School's Aboriginal Reference Group meetings; assist with developing and approve Aboriginal content in NOSM's curriculum; and, work with the School to ensure connections are maintained with First Nations and Métis communities across the North.
The sense of direction given by the Council of Elders is fitting as this is a time of change at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. Over the next month, the School will celebrate its tenth anniversary and will be launching NOSM's Strategic Plan 2015-2020: Reaching Beyond Extraordinary Together-which many of the Elders were involved with developing.
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The Northern Ontario School of Medicine is committed to the education of high quality physicians and health professionals, and to international recognition as a leader in distributed, learning-centered, community-engaged education and research.