The Lawson Foundation Guest Blog Series
The Lawson Foundation is pleased to share the first blog post in our series authored by our grantees. It provides an opportunity for our grantees to share stories from the field, lessons learned, as well as put forward thought provoking policy ideas.


This is the time of year when I, along with my colleagues in health and health promotion, dissect the provincial and federal annual budgets to see if our diseases of interest made the cut.

“Are they going to fund programs for diabetes?”

“Will there be something on mental well-being?“

“What about early childhood education?”

This year however, I am reflecting on the words of Elders whom we work with in the DEVOTION Network who constantly ask me this question “Why don’t we have a Federal or Provincial Ministry of Wellness?” I am also asking myself, why aren’t we turning to elders across Canada to ask them what Canadians can learn from generations of Indigenous people about living in a good way.

The agency that influences my professional life the most, the Canadian Institutes of Health Researchis carved up into 13 institutes based largely on diseases and body parts, and only one of them, the Institute for Aboriginal Peoples Health, allocates small funds for research into wellness. And to the best of my knowledge, none of our federal or provincial policy makers is truly focusing on the promotion of the Indigenous concept of wellness. In a time when novel, impactful strategies are needed to curb rising trends in chronic illnesses, should we not reflect on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and listen to ancient teachings from Indigenous leaders in Canada?

I am a settler, scientist and new father from Treaty 1 Territory in Manitoba. Over the past 10 years I have learned about the impact of colonial Canada and residential school atrocities on the health of Indigenous peoples. I have also listened to Elders from across the country about traditional ways of living and healing. These teachings resonate deeply with me, as they have universal application and they have survived the test of time and colonization. In that regard, I would like to propose the adoption of two key Indigenous teachings when creating policies for child health in Canada. I believe that they have been largely neglected by western science and policy makers and could make a real difference in moving our country towards better health.

The first teaching we need to adopt when investing in health policy, is the First Nations concept of holistic health through the Medicine Wheel teachings. Regardless of our background or worldview, most of us can relate to the concept that our emotional, mental and physical well-being are intertwined. Why then do we create policies and structures that treat them separately? While spiritual well-being may well be something westerners struggle with, a spiritual connection is widely recognized as a core component of resilience for children, particularly Indigenous children. For Indigenous youth, they may be linked to cultural connectedness rather than a religious connection. Cultural connectedness is a powerful protective factor against suicide, for example. Currently, most policies aimed at health promotion for children target single aspects of the Medicine Wheel (e.g., mandating 30 minutes of daily physical activity) without supporting all or multiple aspects. This singular approach has been largely ineffective.

The second key shift policy makers should adopt is promoting programming that supports populations “living in a good way”, [Mino-Bimaadiziwin (Anishinaabe) or Mino-pimatisiwin (Cree)]. Shifting policy frameworks towards this strengths-based, wellness-centred model of living in a good way is innovative in several aspects. It permits variation in implementation based on local needs, customs, cultures and resources. It could prevent the consequences of “silo” funding that drives Canada’s current health spending. That said, moving in this direction would require taking a social innovation approach  at  local levels, rather than a restrictive top-down approach that currently drives many policy initiatives in this country. These too have been ineffective.

Within our DEVOTION research team, key stakeholders have identified wellness and Mino-pimatisiwin as key pillars for our group as we co-develop strategies for supporting community-centred approaches to promoting optimal maternal-child health. This concept forces our team to think outside the current system, engage individuals not currently involved in health promotion and work alongside communities to ensure these initiatives are relevant to their needs. We have learned a great deal from this activity that could guide non-Indigenous policy makers in this country:

  • Listen first, speak last.
  • Think beyond silos and current funding models.
  • Consider future generations, not current government priorities.

There are also some models we can learn from to help guide this shift. The University of Saskatchewan offers a course in Indigenous Wellness in their College of Medicine and the Native American Community Academy offers courses on wellness to all students, including an individual medicine wheel-based wellness personal learning plan. We need bold leaders who recognize the wisdom in these teachings and see the impact they could have on supporting child health policies in Canada that could actually be effective.

Indigenous people in Canada embody the concept of resilience. Their teachings and culture have survived multiple attempts at eradication. They have survived changes in leadership, economic crises and population expansion into their land. The concept of wellness and living in a good way contributes to this resilience. If non-Indigenous Canadians can begin to work with Indigenous elders and leaders in this country to determine how these teachings can inform policies in Canada, perhaps we can make more rapid progress towards being one of the world’s healthiest nations.


Jonathan McGavock is Associate Professor and holds the Robert Wallace Cameron Chair in Evidence-based Child Health in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Manitoba. He also holds an Applied Health Chair in Resilience and Obesity in Children from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.



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