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Queen’s University is launching a new program that will enable Indigenous students in a remote area of northern Ontario to train as health professionals without having to move away from their home region.

The creation of the Queen’s Weeneebayko Health Education Program, which is being officially announced on Tuesday, will make it easier for young people to launch careers as nurses, rehabilitation specialists or other health professionals, as well as start on the path to medical school. It will also help ensure people living in the area have better access to health professionals as a result.

“I think this is an amazing opportunity and wonderful story to share, not only for the youth but for future generations to come,” said Lynne Innes, president and CEO of the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA).

The health authority, which serves people living in communities in the James Bay and Hudson Bay region, including Moose Factory, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat, has a long-standing relationship with Queen’s, with patients and health professionals regularly travelling back and forth from Kingston.

Since 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report and recommendations, including calls to close educational gaps, there has been a growing push to provide opportunities for young Indigenous people to pursue an education and the career of their choice. But Jane Philpott, dean of health sciences at Queen’s University, said it’s challenging or even impossible for many young Indigenous people living in remote regions to uproot their lives to get the education they want. That’s one of the driving forces behind the creation of the new health program.

“Instead of trying to get them to come to us, we could go to them, take the university to the community as opposed to expecting the community to come to the university,” Dr. Philpott said.

The first courses to be offered when the new program is running in 2025 will likely be in nursing and health sciences, said Dr. Philpott. According to Queen’s, the bulk of the programming will take place in Moosonee, but courses can be offered elsewhere in the region as well. Some will be online and there will likely be travel involved at some point, with students going to Kingston to complete some course requirements. More details about the curriculum, how many spaces will be available and structure of the program will be made public later.

“The idea is as much as possible to deliver the course content in the community,” Dr. Philpott said.

Ms. Innes said making it easier for students to study close to home will open up new pathways for many young people living in the region. “I had to go away for higher education, leaving my family and friends,” Ms. Innes said. “It was a huge hurdle for me to get over to be successful.”

She said offering postsecondary opportunities for students in the region will be a game changer for many, especially the many young mothers who can’t leave their children to pursue a career in the southern part of the province.

The program will provide opportunities for young people, but is also a strategic investment in the long-term health of the region. People living in remote regions, such as the WAHA area, have long struggled with having to travel to receive health care or relying on help from people who fly in and out and don’t have long-standing relationships with their patients. It can also be difficult for patients to be treated by health professionals who don’t understand their culture. Many of these problems have become more acute during the pandemic, with the health system struggling to meet demand and critical worker shortages hitting communities across the country.

Making it easier for students from the WAHA region to train as health professionals close to home is an important way to boost access to the system and improve outcomes, said David Taylor, the Queen’s senior adviser for the new program.

“This has potential to make a huge difference in the health human resources needs in those communities, but in a way that meets those needs way better than someone who flies in to deliver that care can,” Dr. Taylor said.

The Mastercard Foundation is donating more than $31-million in the development of the new health program.

“There’s a real awareness that we need to address the lack of Indigenous health professionals,” said Jennifer Brennan, director of Canada Programs at the Mastercard Foundation. “These are new levels of philanthropic commitment.”

Courses will be developed collaboratively with experts from Queen’s and WAHA to ensure they include elements of Indigenous culture. For instance, instead of a typical classroom environment, some of the course content will involve learning on the land and incorporating cultural teachings, Ms. Innes said.

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