Actions and Commitments

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

‘It is who I am, deeply rooted in me’: York Region hospitals empower Indigenous Peoples with healing, smudging

June 26, 2023

Mackenzie Health, Oak Valley establish new smudging policies, Southlake introduces new Indigenous patient services

Indigenous Healing Diversity Fai
Oak Valley Health’s Markham Stouffville Hospital hosted a diversity fair. Performing an Indigenous welcoming song is Ashley Bergman, executive director and co-founder of the Indigenous Action Committee. – Steve Somerville/Metroland

NationTalk: – When there’s smoke, there may not necessarily be fire. Instead, smoke may mean there’s healing and smudging with sage, cedar, sweet grass and traditional tobacco. 

Recently, all the hospitals in York Region established policies to allow for smudging ceremonies in dedicated spaces and outdoor gardens to better enhance the Indigenous patient experience.  “Smudging provides Indigenous Peoples with a way to gain spiritual protection and improve their spiritual health,” said Jennifer Trumble, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

Through her lived experiences on and off reserve, Trumble is building bridges between western medicine and Indigenous healing as the new Indigenous patient navigator at Southlake Regional Health Centre, through knowledge, understanding and acceptance.  “Indigenous peoples may feel more open and safe with me because I am Indigenous and have understanding of Indigenous culture and traditions,” she said.

“It is who I am, deeply rooted in me. And I can walk with all of this in a good way, helping people.”

The new role — a first in York Region — was made possible through federal funding and in partnership with Georgina Island First Nation and the Barrie Area Native Advisory Circle.  Just as the title suggests, Trumble helps Indigenous patients navigate the health-care system between both western and Indigenous ways. 

“This role will help integrate traditional practices and medicines alongside the patient’s care plan for a more people-centred approach; a more holistic approach,” she said. “Every individual is different in where they are, their beliefs and practices.”

Historically, many Indigenous people have not had a pleasant experience with the health-care system and many are hesitant to come to a hospital, leading to higher health disparities among Indigenous people, Trumble said.  “Many Indigenous Peoples have a difficult time trusting the health-care system due to a colonial legacy of racism,” Trumble said.  “Intergenerational trauma and ongoing inequities pose challenges when navigating the health-care system. Our goal is to ensure that Indigenous communities have equitable access to high quality and culturally safe care.”

Department by department, there is plenty to unlearn and unpack through dedicated training for hospital staff, especially with the new smudging policy, said Southlake’s diversity, equity and inclusion director, Chantelle Vernon.  “(Some) don’t necessarily understand what smudging is or are not familiar with the smell and they might panic, think they see smoke or think there might be a fire,” Vernon said. 

The hospital is working to “champion” an environment of inclusion and diversity by raising awareness of the barriers to health care, she added.  “That really comes from understanding who our patient population is and being able to better educate our staff. This is a journey.”

Indigenous patient services include providing access to individualized cultural, mental, emotional and spiritual support; connecting patients and families to community resources and healing supports; counselling and culturally relevant support before, during and after clinical appointments; and advocating for respectful end-of-life care focused on individual goals and wishes.  “These services are important for Indigenous patients and their families to feel safe when receiving care and are an important aspect for someone’s health and healing journey,” Vernon said.

And providing these services improves patient outcomes and experiences — the goal — within the health-care system, she added. 

Southlake is the only hospital in York Region to offer Indigenous patient services in house. The Spiritual Care Team at Mackenzie Health, which includes Mackenzie Richmond Hill and Cortellucci Vaughan hospitals, consults with Anishnawbe Health Toronto as the need arises.


‘Orphan’s voice of the missing and murdered’: Survivors share experience of loss at Sharon Temple

‘Chance to learn who we are’: York Region Indigenous students learn traditional teaching through skilled trades

Anishnawbe Health Toronto partners with leaders and healers from nearby Indigenous communities to provide guidance and additional supports.  “It’s important that we make every effort to ensure our patients receive the care they need in a healing environment that supports the rites and rituals of their faith beliefs and traditions,” said Christina Cindric, spokesperson for Mackenzie Health.

Smudging is only one part of the inclusion fabric, said Oak Valley equity, diversity and inclusion manager Vivian Yee, who recently hosted a diversity fair for hospital staff.

Last year, Markham Stouffville participated in the Canadian Library Project (, where books were covered in Indigenous inspired fabrics in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.  “There are great efforts in building more awareness about truth and reconciliation in order to promote an environment of inclusion where Indigenous staff, physicians and patients feel respected and supported,” Yee said.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: We asked each hospital in York Region if they allow smudging ceremonies. We learned the hospitals provide dedicated Indigenous patient services to better enhance the patient experience.

Amanda Persico

Amanda Persico is an award-winning reporter who has been with for more than 10 years.