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Indigenous art and acknowledgements make centres more welcoming

Salmon, butterflies, hummingbirds and starlings are animating BC Cancer centres with their energetic renderings and splashes of colour by Indigenous artists.
Flowers painted on pillars by Coast Salish artist Carrielynn Victor
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​Flowers painted on pillars at the entrance to BC Cancer - Vancouver by Coast Salish artist Carrielynn Victor

A mural at BC Cancer - Abbotsford painted by Coast Salish artist Carrielynn Victor

Welcome messages and land acknowledgements have also been put in place to express gratitude to those whose territory centres reside on, and to help make Indigenous patients and families feel more comfortable and welcomed.

Birds swoop among a forest of fir trees in one of three new murals at BC Cancer – Abbotsford. Coast Salish artist Carrielynn Victor depicted these birds flying in harmony as a reminder to loved ones to support family members who are sick. 

Victor is the same artist who painted a mural series across six pillars at the entrance to BC Cancer – Vancouver, which operates on the unceded, traditional and ancestral territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlí̓lwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-waututh) Nations. She painted flora and fauna of the West Coast, focusing on plants that provide medicine.

“From the sea bottom to the mountaintop and the sky, my intentions are about lifting the mood for people coming into the centre who may be having a difficult time.”  

Indigenous artists have been commissioned to create these works as part of BC Cancer’s commitment to eliminating Indigenous-specific racism and promoting culturally safe cancer care for Indigenous people. Indigenous patient navigators (IPN) work to create awareness around the importance of trauma-informed care and spiritual connectedness for Indigenous patients at each of the six cancer centres across the province. Additionally, staff and executive at BC Cancer are participating in an Indigenous-specific anti-racism learning journey which will help BC Cancer better understand how colonization has impacted the way Indigenous people think, feel and access institutional health care.

“IPNs are making a world of difference; however, Indigenous people need to see themselves in not just faces but in spaces as well,”
said Warren Clarmont, executive director, Indigenous health & cultural safety for BC Cancer in an earlier story about promoting culturally safe cancer care for Indigenous people for World Cancer Day

Spaces for ceremony and cultural protocol

In Plain Sight, the 2020 report highlighting Indigenous-specific racism in B.C. health care, recommends “health authorities create culturally appropriate, dedicated physical spaces in health facilities for ceremony and cultural protocol, and visibly include Indigenous artwork, signage and territorial acknowledgement throughout these facilities."

Such work is underway at BC Cancer – Abbotsford, which is located on the traditional, ancestral and unceded lands of the Màthxwi (Matsqui) and Semá:th (Sumas) people of Stó:lō Nation, ​where the roof is being finished and benches are to be added to a sacred outdoor space built of cedar. 

While centres are preparing for dedicated spaces to be constructed later this year or next, they’re embracing Indigenous practices in their centres and celebrations. A hoop dancer​ impressed onlookers at the celebration of the CST go-live at BC Cancer – Surrey.  Moreover, Indigenous patient navigators bring Indigenous practices into the centres every day by burning sweet grass or sage, bringing Elders to the centres for prayer, territorial acknowledgements and welcomes, and drumming and singing for patients and families as a form of spiritual healing and sustenance and holding healing circles.  

More Indigenous art enhancing centres

​​Inside BC Cancer – Vancouver, Tsleil-Waututh artist Olivia George’s salmon swims and dives through each stage of its life while her pink and purple butterflies spread their wings and fly. She envisioned these insects – which undergo a life-altering transformation – surrounded by the trust, love and support of those closest to them. 

At various spots at BC Cancer – Victoria, which is situated on the traditional and unceded territory of the Lək̓ʷəŋən (Lekwungen) Peoples, known today as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, privacy films with designs created by three local First Nations artists with ties to Coast Salish, Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth cultural families – the three cultural families on Vancouver Island – deck windows and glass dividers. 

Award-winning artist, graphic designer and teacher Jamin Zuroski designed the “Thunderbirds Journey” and “Feathers that Guide Us” privacy films. An eagle design was created by Nuu-chah-nulth artist Joslyn Charlie (Williams). Brianna Bear, an artist based in the traditional territory of her father’s people, in the Lək̓ʷəŋən, ​or place to smoke herring, (and who has roots to the Namgis/Kwakwaka’wakw people in Alert Bay on her mother’s side) created a hummingbird design that adorns a stairwell and glass dividers. 

Bear, who has seen family members cope with breast cancer, has also gifted two of her pink and red hummingbird breast cancer ribbon prints to breast cancer screening clinics in Victoria. 

Welcome messages and land acknowledgements

It’s not just Indigenous art that greets patients and families at BC Cancer centres but also welcome messages and land acknowledgements.

​​​“BC Cancer – Kelowna is located on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the syilx/Okanagan people” reads a sign outside this centre. “waiʔ xast sx̌alxaʕlt / waiʔ kʷckicx” or “Hello, good day / You have arrived” reads a sign on a sliding glass door in the Syilx language.

Rosy Hartman, Indigenous ​​​​​​design and cultural safety lead with Indigenous cancer control, developed the message in consultation with the BC Cancer – Kelowna Indigenous patient navigators and a Syilx Elder from the local Westbank First Nation. 

“I was at a meeting yesterday in Kamloops with members of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and one of the community members said she had recently taken her family member to the Kelowna cancer centre for treatment,” says Hartman. “She was so happy to see the welcome message in Syilx. It made her feel very welcome at the centre.”

Leaping frogs enliven 13 territorial acknowledgement plaques posted at key reception points around BC Cancer – Surrey. The artist behind them, Leslie Wells, who hails from the Semiahmoo First Nation, is also working with the centre on a large exterior design project. 

Vanessa Prescott, Indigenous patient navigator, Indigenous cancer control, says Jessica Gonzales, one of BC Cancer’s first Indigenous patient partners, was delighted to see a land acknowledgement at the Surrey centre: 

“‘This is the congenial welcome muchly needed!’” she exclaimed. “‘I love and appreciate this!’”

BC Cancer – Prince George, which is situated on the traditional and unceded territory of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation​, has just set priorities for the ways it’s going to make its centre feel like a haven to Indigenous patients and family members, and multiple projects will begin within the fiscal year. 

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