Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 22: Health (18-24)

Cape Breton researchers work toward official recognition of Indigenous medicine

March 16, 2024

Maskwio’mi is birch bark oil used to treat skin conditions

Tuma Young setting up the fire to extract Maskwiomin
Tuma Young, co-founder of a Nova Scotia company that produces birch bark oil, said knowledge of the medicine was nearly lost until he had discussions with Mi’kmaw elders about the remedy. Calling it a ‘campfire’ method, he said the birch bark is put in a perforated container, which is then placed in a sacred fire. Oil from the heated birch bark then drips into another container beneath it.  (Matthias Bierenstiel)

CBC Indigenous: Researchers at Cape Breton University in Sydney, N.S., have set an ambitious goal of having Health Canada classify a traditional Mi’kmaw remedy as a medicine. 

Maskwio’mi, meaning oil made from birch bark in Mi’kmaw, is used to treat skin conditions such as rashes, eczema and psoriasis. Birch bark extract cream, lotion and ointment produced in Sydney and sold under the brand name Maskwiomin are currently registered as cosmetics through Health Canada for “cleansing, improving or altering the complexion, skin.”

But Maskwiomin co-founder and co-owner Tuma Young wants to see the traditional Mi’kmaw medicine recognized as just that.

“Our societies, our history, our culture, our medicines were on par with everybody else in fact, a significant amount of the pharmacopia is based on Indigenous knowledge,” said Young, who is a Mi’kmaw knowledge holder, lawyer and assistant professor at CBU.

“These medicines that we currently use in western science today, I would say a significant percentage of them were actually derived from Indigenous knowledge.” 

a bottle of birch bark extract sat next to Indigenous baskets
Knowledge about using maskwio’mi, or birch bark oil, as a skin treatment was passed down for generations among Indigenous people across the Atlantic region, and was nearly lost. Now it’s in lotions, creams and soaps produced in Sydney. (Matthias Bierenstiel)

For thousands of years, Indigenous people have valued the treatment. Now Young and his company are taking steps toward wider, scientific recognition.

It’s a testament to Mi’kmaw endurance that the knowledge was passed down for generations across the Atlantic region, said Young. But it was nearly lost when Indigenous people became wary of sharing certain traditions with the outside world because they could be stolen or exploited for financial gain. 

“And that goes against our principles that are contained in the seven sacred teachings of sharing,” he said. “So we need to share this knowledge, we need to in order to fully protect it. It has to be brought into the open and shared with everybody.” 

Maskwiomin co-founder Matthias Bierenstiel, a chemistry professor at CBU, continues to work with a team trying to pin down the active ingredients in birch bark oil that provide its healing properties. 

two men smiling and posing
Tuma Young, left, and Matthias Bierenstiel continue to work toward their goal of getting Health Canada to recognize maskwio’mi as a medicine. (Matthias Bierenstiel)

A scientific paper published in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry last month concluded the extract meets Health Canada regulations when its concentration is reduced in a cream. The paper noted birch bark oil created through heat was “traditionally mixed with goose fat or bear grease” to make a skin salve. 

“Our goal is to actually have it recognized as a natural health product with specific health claims,” Bierensteil said. “But there is no category for that in the database for Health Canada and the [U.S.] Food and Drug Administration, so we need to do the painstaking scientific viewpoint of proving step by step that this is a medicine.”

The research is fascinating, Bierensteil said, because maskwio’mi is highly complex, containing more than 200 compounds. More studies are being conducted to examine its effectiveness as an antifungal agent and also to combat infections and inflammation.

Birch forest with pink sky in the background.
A birch forest at sunset. (Submitted by Heather Goobie)

Though it can be frustrating, the pair said they respect Health Canada for making sure products are safe for the public. 

In an emailed response to questions from CBC, a Health Canada spokesperson said natural health products must contain ingredients set out in their regulations and also have a therapeutic use.

Young and Bierensteil said the goal of their company is to bring their profits back to the community and promote etuaptmumk, or two-eyed, seeing that combines Western and Indigenous knowledge. 

“And despite the fact that L’nus have thousands of years of research contained in our worldview, we still have to go through this, the Western approach to doing so,” Young said.

He said it’s also important for this remedy to be classified as a medicine because it adds modern legitimacy to Indigenous knowledge and science.


Tehosterihens Deer, Reporter

Tehosterihens Deer is a Haudenosaunee from the Mohawk nation of Kahnawake. He is a reporter and journalist with CBC Nova Scotia.