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First Steps

Maskwacis Health Services in Alberta was the first Indigenous organization to launch an Early Years program with the Ermineskin Cree Nation in 2018. Registered nurses Charlene Rattlesnake and Heather Downie, share their experience developing the program.
“What’s revolutionary is that the Early Years gives us the flexibility to design the program how we want it and that's really empowering. It’s important to have a sense of ownership of programs that are going to affect generations to come. Because we’re not only working with people who are pregnant right now, we’re creating the foundation for people who are yet unborn.”
— Charlene Rattlesnake

Charlene is a mother of five and a grandmother. She has worked as a nurse in Maskwacis since 2006.

On family well-being

Our activities are based on a holistic understanding of health and wellness. It’s just getting the message out there that health is so much more than what it traditionally is in their minds. Western thought of what well-being is was always in the forefront, whereas now we realize that western ways don’t always work for Indigenous people. So now we are taking a step back and using our own ways to improve our health status—including mental, emotional and spiritual health.

On cultural reawakening

Culture is very meaningful to me… and I see a real hunger for that knowledge. As soon as we say something that connects with the families you can see it in their faces, like, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” For a long time, people were saying, “Oh, the culture is dying.” But no, it’s very much alive. In this role I have found that there is so much knowledge out there and it’s not lost, it’s there for the taking. This program has allowed for people to have access to it.

On collective visions for the future

I want people to say, “Thank goodness for the Early Years, and thank goodness that they had such a strong cultural component. We are now healthier, body, mind, and spirit… because we know a little bit more about our past, our culture, our values and beliefs.” I think that that’s going to make people healthier overall.

Heather Downie, Early Years Program Manager. Heather is a mother of two and has worked as a nurse in Maskwacis since 1997.

On creating opportunities

When the program began, it was a real benefit that we offered the Early Years Visitor training right here in the community. So many women here have the skills and want to work—they just can’t leave their families. So this program was refreshing. People were excited. And it speaks to the strength of the community that these women are coming together and telling each other that they should apply and join.

On the power of relationships

I see the program from two perspectives. One is as a manager who has seen the Early Years Visitors really growing and becoming confident and advocating for these families like they would their own. And on the other side, I see the families reaching out to me and Charlene with confidence. They’ll send us over a family picture, which is an intimate relationship you don’t often have the opportunity to build as a nurse. This relationship that the Visitors are building with these moms, it’s ongoing. It’s so rewarding to see the moms and the babies as they grow.

On the parent-led approach

The program is about making families the priority and being ready when they’re ready. That’s the benefit of establishing relationships. We just try to help them feel good about their choices. When I reflect back on the year with immunizations, for example, our most successful clinics were the evening clinics when Charlene and I did them ourselves. They already knew us, so there was a sense of comfort. They know the needle is still going to hurt! But they feel a little more at ease.