Conayt Friendship Society’s new partnership with the Thompson Rivers University School of Nursing is momentous for all Aboriginal organizations across British Columbia, said Conayt Executive Director George Girouard.

Both organizations gathered on Thursday, Sept. 8 to celebrate the new partnership which will provide nursing students with culturally relevent education and experience as well as address some of the health care needs of local Aboriginal people.

A group of third and fourth year students from TRU’s School of Nursing will spend several days a week in Merritt working with Conayt’s various programs – addictions, pre-natal health, youth support and elder care – gaining hands on experience and being mentored by Elders and Conayt staff. These mentors will share their knowledge about the history, traditions and health issues of Nicola Valley’s Aboriginal people as well as provide a political context.

Educators and Elders are hoping that the new collaborative partnership, which is the first of its kind in B.C., will increase cultural understanding as well as improve health practices, particularly among the Aboriginal people.

“The goal is that we be able to merge our western ways with an Aboriginal way of thinking and have more knowledge than we had before,” said nursing faculty Sherry Bade.

Dr. Barbara Patterson, TRU Dean of Nursing said that in the past students spent six weeks in a First Nations community but were not provided with context to understand the Aboriginal people they cared for.

“They wouldn’t understand treatys, land claims, or fundamental beliefs and protocols and as a result they made some fatal mistakes and our turnover of nurses was ridiculously high,” said Patterson.

Addressing this problem, the new pilot program will see Elders and Conayt staff navigating the students to a better cultural undersanding, said Patterson.

“Change occurs one step at a time, but you have to take the first step,” said Girouard at the celebration. “We’re breaking down barriers and our future is golden.”

Nursing students present were also excited about the opportunity to be a part of the program.

Jessica Dubetz of Kamloops said she feels lucky to be part of the first group of students to participate.

“I’ve always been interested in culture and I think it will be great to actually work with people first hand in this setting,” she said, adding that nursing itself is rewarding. “You never waste a day.”