08/08/2017 13:04 EDT | Updated 08/08/2017 17:18 EDT

These Canadian Nurses Have Apologized To Indigenous Groups. Will You?

They've admitted they played a role in forced sterilization.

In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and incredible awareness-raising by individuals like the Wenjack family and Gord Downie, Canadians are publicly confronting the tragic history of residential schools.

Other injustices are still in need of public support.

In the 1970s, hundreds of Indigenous women were forcibly sterilized in Canadian hospitals. As recently as 2008, First Nations, Inuit and Métis mothers reported facing pressure to get their tubes tied after giving birth at one Saskatoon hospital.

In a historic move, a group of nurses is taking a stand, confronting the role of their profession in this injustice against Indigenous women and working toward reconciliation.

Mark Blinch / Reuters
Indigenous rights activists hold a sign reading "150 + Years of Genocide", as they march following the "Unsettle Canada Day 150 Picnic", as the country marks its 150th anniversary with "Canada 150" celebrations, in Toronto, Ont., July 1, 2017.

On National Aboriginal Day last month, the Canadian Association of Perinatal and Women's Health Nurses (CAPWHN) released a "statement on cultural safety and humility." The association acknowledged that, as active participants in forced sterilization and the administration of residential schools, nurses contributed to "the current social and health inequities amongst First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women."

It's a rare kind of admission. While the federal government and some churches have issued apologies, few if any other groups in Canada have stepped up to accept responsibility for our sordid history.

"It's so important that a non-Indigenous organization did this. It speaks volumes," says Lisa Bourque Bearskin, past president of the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association.

The nurses wanted to do more than just apologize, says Leah Thorp, co-author of the CAPWHN statement. Working with Indigenous nurses, Thorp and colleagues are striving to raise awareness about discrimination in health care and to build more culturally appropriate care for Indigenous women.

"It's so important that a non-Indigenous organization did this. It speaks volumes."

CAPWN is now partnering with other health organizations, including the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, to develop educational resources for nurses, Thorp says. Resources will cover issues like intergenerational trauma and its link to addiction and abuse. Greater education about and respect for traditional Indigenous practices will also be encouraged.

Western medicine has historically suppressed certain practices, such as having female relatives present during childbirth, or the use of cradleboards. For generations, missionaries and health workers discouraged these traditional baby carriers in order to break down Indigenous culture, citing unproven evidence that they harm babies.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report, there were 94 calls to action. While many of those items were directed at governments, others placed the onus on non-governmental groups, like health workers and journalists—and Canadians at large. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, told Canadians that it was up to all of us to "step up and take the actions that are needed."

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Justice Murray Sinclair speaks during the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report in Ottawa, Ont., Dec. 15, 2015.

Thorp says nurses have heeded Sinclair's challenge.

Nurses shouldn't stand alone. It would be a huge step forward for reconciliation if groups across Canada—doctors, teachers, police, lawyers—followed this example and reflected on the role their professions played in the darker side of Canada's history. There's an opportunity for many more groups to work with Indigenous peoples to answer the question: How can we, as a profession, do better going forward?

Reconciliation isn't a job for governments alone. Canadians must all take responsibility.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day. For more dispatches from WE, check out WE Stories.

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