Centering Indigenous voices in the culture of medicine

How the Indigenous Speaker Series is helping to transform culture inside the Faculty of Medicine — and beyond.

Every session of the Faculty of Medicine’s Indigenous Speaker Series opens with a song. Seated in his study, surrounded by books and carvings, Derek K. Thompson – Thlaapkiituup welcomes guest speakers from Indigenous communities across B.C. and Canada with a song of greeting sung to the rhythm of a traditional circular drum.

“It’s a way of bringing culture into the space where the conversations happen,” explains Derek, the Faculty of Medicine’s Director of Indigenous Engagement and the series moderator.

Launched in 2021 from the Faculty’s Office of Respectful Environments, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI), the Indigenous Speakers Series is an online platform to begin, continue and advance the conversation about telling the truth and reconciling for the future.

Each session in the series approaches truth and reconciliation from a different angle — in the form of conversations and panel discussions with Indigenous academics, writers, scientists, artists and Survivors of the Indian Residential School system and their families on topics ranging from First Nations health governance and the importance of culturally safe care to the living legacy of the harms stemming from residential schools.

With more than 20 sessions now available to stream, the Indigenous Speakers Series has drawn upwards of 4,300 viewers from across Canada and around the world — creating important opportunities for Indigenous people to share their expertise and stories, and for non-Indigenous people to listen, observe and to open themselves up to honest conversations.

Here, Derek explains how the series is helping to transform culture at the Faculty of Medicine and shares some of the memorable moments he’s had along the way.

Last year I attended a gathering of the Faculty of Medicine’s regional associate deans. During the break people came up to me and said, “I listened to the Indigenous Speaker Series and I wanted to thank you.” More than 30 people offered their gratitude that day. I was entirely surprised and humbled.

We certainly never intended the series to be seismic in terms of its ability to transform anything, but we hope it’s a spoke in the wheel — helping in some way to transform the culture, not just advancing the processes of truth and reconciliation in the historical context, but even beyond that. I like to think people walk away and take a pause from what they thought they knew and then bring it into their work.

A miniature cedar bentwood box.
A drum stick of a raven, carved by Ray Sim.

Each has been unique in its own way, and the guests continue to inspire me. The sessions that stay with me, given the participants’ courage and bravery, are the two panels on the Indian Residential School (IRS) experience in Canada.

In September 2023, we hosted the panel of survivors of the IRS, including my dad Charlie and my uncle Jack, and the year before we heard from children of survivors, including my brother Darren. It was equally inspiring and devastating not only to listen to what they were saying, but to see people struggle with the truth and the anxiety of where their truth is going to land.

Derek’s drum – buwačabł, used to welcome honoured guests to the Indigenous Speakers Series. The drum was made by the late Robert Thomas and painted by the late Paula Swan. The design is of a unique Nuuchahnulth stylized crescent moon created by renowned artist Joe David.  

I don’t step into those vulnerable places easily, so the speakers from those two sessions are heroes in my book. If there is any truth to the expression “the truth shall set you free,” I hope it produces some solace for each of them. This stuff isn’t from way back in time; it comes from people we love and know right now, in our homes and communities.

I learn something from everyone. What’s apparent in each interview is that every guest is willing to be vulnerable, and I think that speaks to a higher level of emotional intelligence. It’s something I have a hard time stepping into, so it gave me pause to think about my own place in this work. There’s a goodness in bringing vulnerability into these conversations. It’s not cut and dried. Sometimes there are no answers and that ambiguity is what’s needed.

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