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Connecting patients with their traditions and culture

October 8, 2014

Traditional wellness counsellors boost outcomes for aboriginal patients

Story and photo by Sherri Gallant

If an Aboriginal patient requests access to traditional ways of healing, herbal medicines or other types of cultural support in Calgary, it is likely Camille “Pablo” Russell will get a call.

A traditional wellness counselor for Alberta Health Services and Blackfoot Elder who was raised on the Blood reserve near Lethbridge, Russell knows that when Aboriginal people are sick, their road to wellness is smoother if they have access to the comfort of their culture and traditions.Camille (Pablo) Russell, a traditional wellness counsellor for Alberta Health Services, demonstrates how wild sage is prepared for use in ceremonial smudging.

“We are covering a large region in southern Alberta,” says Russell, 48, who has been a student of herbs and healing for 23 years. “I do a lot of work in palliative care and in the hospices. We have a team approach to our patients as there are often complex cases.”

Russell, who is also an international lecturer on First Nations history, is based at the Elbow River Healing Lodge, at the Sheldom Chumir Health Centre in Calgary. He and fellow traditional wellness counsellor Hal Eagletail (who is from the Tsuu T’ina Nation) provide services at acute care sites in Calgary that include smudging and prayer.

Smudging involves the burning of a sacred herb like sage or sweetgrass in a ceremonial way to bless or to cleanse a person, place or object of negative energies or influences. Calgary hospitals have designated sites for smudging, usually in the chapels. Other services include connecting patients to other resources, like housing and counselling.

Russell and Eagletail are looking to establish sites in South Zone—a goal supported by Aboriginal Health officials — and are providing targeted awareness training and instruction for AHS staff.

Dr. Cheryl Currie, an AIHS Translational Chair in Aboriginal Health and assistant professor at the University of Lethbridge, is highly supportive of Russell 's work. Like him, she would like to see the Traditional Wellness Counsellors program grow.

"Research in Canada and internationally has shown that engagement or re-engagement in Indigenous cultural traditions promotes health and healing, Currie says.” Traditional wellness counsellors play an important role in furthering the health and well being of Aboriginal Peoples in the province.”

Traditional wellness counselling is provided under the guidance of Aboriginal Health. Health promotion activities include the Nitsitapii wellness program, wellness presentations and workshops , Aboriginal Women’s wellness day, cultural awareness sessions and community awareness events.

Physicians who wish to refer aboriginal patients to Russell or Eagletail can contact Nicole Eshkakogan, senior manager, Aboriginal Health Program, Calgary and South Zone.