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Mohawk appointed director of health program

Courtesy Konwahahawi Sarah Rourke

In an effort to address the ongoing health concerns in Indigenous communities across Canada, McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences established the Indigenous Health Professions Program (IHPP) in March 2018.

Now, four years later, the IHPP is transitioning to new leadership under Kanien’kehá:ka Konwahahawi Sarah Rourke, a doctor of education in social justice and executive leadership.

The appointment of Dr. Rourke (from Akwesasne) to director of the IHPP was announced earlier this month in an online statement by the faculty and came at a crucial time, according to IHPP outreach coordinator Alex Allard-Gray.

“I think having Dr. Rourke join our team is really at an opportune and perfect time because now we have a fresh perspective,” said Allard-Gray.

“We have an opportunity to build our team with a new voice, and, maybe, this is an opportunity for the IHPP to bring innovative and fresh ideas into it.”

The Eastern Door spoke with Dr. Rourke to talk about her ambitions for the program and its foreseeable future.

“I am completely dedicated to community and our youth,” she said. “As a Haudenosaunee woman, it is my duty to ensure safe space for future generations.”

The newly-appointed director went into great detail about what future prospects ought to look forward to when joining the faculty.

“When this position came up, it was about making sure that there were safe spaces for Indigenous people in healthcare, which is one of the most violent spaces for Indigenous people,” she added.

“So for me to come into IHPP, where I can support faculty and students (in creating) a space to share resources to create better relationships where they can learn from each other is what I wanted to do.”

Dr. Rourke’s agenda for IHPP is rooted in creating dialogue for Indigenous people, improving allyship and advocacy between Indigenous communities and healthcare professionals, and building circles of trust between the two.

“I just want to bridge-build,” she said. “I think it’s good to come in and think in the mindset of community. I want to make sure we can all work together in a way that builds upon all our skills.”

The essential purpose of the IHPP, according to the program’s vision statement, is for its graduates to “contribute to (re)building healthy and thriving Indigenous nations, communities, families and individuals and advocate for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs as identified by Indigenous Peoples.”

Based on her colleagues’ feedback and the vision statement itself, Dr. Rourke seems to exemplify the leadership style that the program has been seeking in recent years, especially in terms of the stagnancy caused by the limitations of the pandemic.

“It’s great that she’s coming from outside McGill because she has new perspectives and new ideas about how things could be done differently here,” said Dr. Romina Pace, IHPP’s associate director.

“Really, what we needed was somebody who was motivated to increase education in the multiple facets that we offer. The main advantage is her open-mindedness and her understanding of the complex field that (healthcare) is.”

To give a brief example of Dr. Rourke’s extensive work over the years, she was the Ontario community liaison for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, through which she worked in spaces where extensive and intergenerational trauma were at the forefront.

As a Kanien’kehá:ka from Akwesasne, she’s worked in numerous outreach programs within her community, as seen in her involvement with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, as well as having been a community educator for an HIV/AIDS education program and a junior policy analyst for the Nation Building Program in Akwesasne.

More recently, in 2021, she was a panelist at the United Nations Food Systems Summit focused on the Indigenous Youth Global Declaration on Sustainable and Resilient Food Systems.

The list goes on, with her latest succession to the role of director of IHPP being another accomplishment in her long-standing career of dedicated public service.

Whilst speaking with The Eastern Door, Allard-Gray highlighted most universities’ reputations for being hard places for Indigenous students to have space for their identity in the classroom or to approach topics of Indigenous well-being.

“From day one, Dr. Rourke has been very vocal and clear on her intention to make Indigenous students feel safe at this institution,” he said.

“The work that we’re doing now that she has joined us, I see this as a message of reassurance for Indigenous students, (meaning) that when they come to this institution to learn, their culture, their way of thinking and their ideas of health as Indigenous people have a place in the classroom.”

One thing is certain: Dr. Rourke’s goal is to reinforce inclusionary narratives and the safety of Indigenous Peoples and students who choose to pursue or enter the line of medicine and health services.

“I think Indigenous students want to know that they are supported and that they’re not alone in academia, and that McGill has programs and people on the ground in place to be able to support them,” she said. “My first thought when coming to McGill was, ‘How do you take care of your spirit when putting yourself out there to take care of others?’ That’s what I’m thinking about when I think about you as a student, above all, your safety. That will be seen in everything that I do.”


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