Thursday marks Indigenous Nurses Day, giving residents of the NWT a chance to thank Indigenous nurses for their roles in caring for their communities.
From offering services in Indigenous languages to bridging cultural gaps in care, Indigenous nurses across the country help make the healthcare system more accessible for everyone.
In the middle of a pandemic, their work is as important as ever.
Lianne Mantla-Look is one of these nurses. A community health nurse in Behchokò, she is fluent in the Tłı̨chǫ language. This helps her communicate with community members who might not be comfortable in English.
“[The] ability to speak my language I feel is an asset because it puts the Elders who cannot speak English at ease,” she said.
“And if it means I can use my language to provide the best possible care I can, then I feel … I’ve done my duty as a nurse and bilingual nurse, because there aren’t that many of us here in the Northwest Territories.”
Her mother, Rosa Mantla, also lives in Behchokò. She has been working in education since 1975 and now coordinates language and cultural programs in the community.
Earlier this week, the women together created a thank-you video for National Nursing Week in Tłı̨chǫ.
Cabin Radio spoke with them to learn more about the importance of nursing in traditional languages and why we should take the time to recognize Indigenous nurses.
This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Meaghan Brackenbury: Have you guys been holding up well with Covid-19 and everything that’s going on?
Lianne Mantla-Look: Being out in the community, I’ve only been out a couple of times since the pandemic hit and, with all the restrictions, we seem to be doing OK. You know, making sure that we’re following all the guidelines as put out by the chief public health officer (Dr Kami Kandola). We’ve only had those five cases in the entire Northwest Territories, so hopefully it stays in that range or less in the coming weeks.
Rosa Mantla: I’m doing well. [The pandemic] has a lot of impact on the people in the community. But together, we’re strong. I really feel grateful that we have many front-line workers. During [Nursing Week] I’ve been trying to get on the radio to say thank-you for doing the work, especially when you’re Aboriginal. [Indigenous] language has to be well-spoken and translated because, in the medical area, our Elders need to be well served. And we have the proper vocabulary that they can understand, and we can understand them. So, I feel that we need to have more of our young people be strong in their language.
Are there any challenges to teaching the language, Rosa?
Rosa Mantla: Well, the challenge we are facing is that many young parents don’t speak the language, even though we have language programs in our schools. If they can, families [should] speak to their children in their language every day. Listening to the language will really help them…even non-speakers can learn if they can listen well and practise the oral language.
Lianne, you said being able to speak the Tlicho language helps you provide better care. How?
Lianne Mantla-Look: The inability to speak English is a huge obstacle in accessing healthcare in the Northwest Territories, because we have these remote community health centres. A majority of the nurses that do come to work in these places come from other areas of Canada and they can’t speak the local languages.
Interpreters are commonplace in most health centres and there’s a third party who speaks on behalf of the patient. The problem that I find is sometimes, the incorrect information can be provided to the physicians and to the nurses who don’t speak the language, and to the patient as well. So, I find that a language barrier can result in mistakes, and that leads to distrust in the medical system, and then the patients end up feeling uncomfortable and unable to fully express themselves.
Because of my background in health care and nursing, I get the medical history from the patient without having to wait for the doctor to ask me because I already know how to do that in the care that I provide. It makes me a better nurse because I have an understanding of language and culture. And then, because I understand some of our cultural practices, I know how to make a patient feel comfortable when I’m providing care or when I’m providing care on behalf of a physician.
You sent a video in where you, Rosa, were giving a thank-you to nurses and Indigenous-language nurses during the pandemic. Why did you decide to make that?
Lianne Mantla-Look: I actually asked my mom to do this because I’m a member of the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association and they put a call-out on social media asking for people who can still speak their Indigenous languages to say thank-you to the nurses for Nursing Week. I wanted my mom to get the recognition that she deserves, because she’s an incredible advocate for our language and culture. And I just wanted people to hear her speak because she gave such an incredible message.
Rosa Mantla: Sometimes we don’t think about how much people can do for us, especially our own people. I thought the video can really give a message to the people. It’s not something about bragging, or just to show what we do. The message I want to give – that anyone can do this type of work, especially with their background, their cultural way of life, and their language – is very important.
Lianne Mantla-Look: Indigenous nurses help communicate with the most vulnerable demographic of the public that we serve. These are the Elders, these are the non-English speaking people and the people who have very limited knowledge of how the healthcare system works.
People have always said to me it’s hard to come back home because people treat you differently when you’re from the community. You leave to go and get an education, you come back, and there’s a lack of trust. Being able to speak an Indigenous language – or for myself, being able to speak Tłı̨chǫ, it kind-of helped me break the barrier.
It’s why we should thank Indigenous nurses. They have an ‘in’ with the community, they know how their communities work, and if they speak their Indigenous language, then all the better for the people that we serve.
Rosa Mantla: Nowadays, there are so many types of different technologies that the medical centres have. Our Elders used to be really afraid to go out, even to Edmonton, if they’re not aware of what’s happening with them. So translators are important. That’s why when you can speak your language, it’s the most special gift that you can offer to your people and for the people that you are interpreting for.
Is there anything that you do want to say to Indigenous nurses in the Northwest Territories?
Rosa Mantla: For me, Indigenous nurses are very important to have, and other nurses too. I know they work hard. These are the people that save lives and they are there for the people in need. I feel that they need to be given recognition as well as praise, so thank you.
Being Indigenous or being Aboriginal, we appreciate things that we have people do for us, but it’s hard to say it in words sometimes. Our heart is there in appreciation.
Lianne Mantla-Look: This week, I want to thank all nurses: Indigenous and non-Indigenous. To all the nurses out there providing the best care they can during this pandemic and especially to the nurses who are working in areas with staffing issues, happy Nursing Week!