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By Michael Brown
April 11, 2008 – Edmonton – Helping aboriginal youth uncover the long lost line that separates First Nations tradition from cigarette addiction has earned a University of Alberta medical student a Kaiser Foundation of Canada National Award for Excellence.Daniel McKennitt, who is in his second year in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, was named the winner in the Excellence in Youth Leadership category for his creation of the Aboriginal Health Group, an aboriginal student group whose main initiative involves a program designed to warn Edmonton’s aboriginal youth about the perils of smoking.
The Aboriginal Health Group’s Culturally Appropriate Use of Tobacco program, started in 2006, is a twist on the Butt Out program created in 1999 by a U of A medical student to promote smoking prevention and proper decision-making about tobacco use to grade 6 students. The program is proving so popular that the Aboriginal Health Group recently received a $25,000 grant from Canadian Heritage to expand the program.
“We were asked to try to put together something, not only because as health professionals and university students we are aboriginal role models, but also to also make something that is culturally appropriate,” said McKennitt. “We wanted to show the cultural appropriateness of tobacco use alongside the inappropriate recreational tobacco use that was never intended to be part of our culture but has seemed to become so.”
To tailor this message to the appropriate audience, the Aboriginal Health Group contacted Edmonton’s various school boards, First Nations elders, different addiction experts, resource workers and aboriginal youth themselves, and then developed a manual and guide book with a sample curriculum designed for students in Grades 1-6.
McKennitt, who was born into the Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation, says while the original Butt Out program is a great program, it paints tobacco in a negative light. He says in many First Nations’ cultures tobacco use is central to many ceremonies and rituals. Unfortunately, that understanding has been lost through the years and a culture of recreational smoking, that is as high as 82 per cent in some aboriginal communities, has taken hold.
“Both aboriginal and non-aboriginal students have been very supportive and very understanding of the appropriateness of tobacco, and that it does have a role in society and is not just an evil drug that has killed so many people,” said McKennitt. “Students shouldn’t be scared to participate in sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies or smudges because the aboriginal people have been using this for traditional purposes, and it’s only since they started using tobacco improperly that the harmful effects have happened.”
To drive home the point, elementary-aged students take part in a smudging ceremony, a ritual where certain herbs, including tobacco, are burned and then the smoke is rubbed on in their skin as a way to cleanse ones body of the negative feelings and energy that inhibit the proper healing.
McKennitt says the ceremony serves a dual purpose: the youth come away from the lecture with a more balanced understanding of the necessity of tobacco in First Nations’ culture, and the university students who deliver the message come away with a heightened understanding of how to continue to provide a positive influence on their various communities.
“They’re finally getting to work on using their skills on something that they will be able to use in their communities,” he said. “[They] haven’t had a chance to do that, so this is a unique experience for them.
“Part of our program is helping aboriginal youth stand up and be proud of their culture, and by seeing these role models and seeing that there are programs specifically geared towards them, hopefully that will begin to change things.”
The Kaiser awards recognize the work being undertaken by organizations, communities and individuals throughout Canada in reducing the physical and mental harms associated with substance use and mental-health issues. Nominated by their peers, winners are selected by an independent National Secretariat and National Advisory Board, based on demonstrated results, leadership, new ideas, research and education. Each award recipient receives a $10,000 grant directed to a recognized charity of their choosing.
The Kaiser Foundation National Awards of Excellence will be given out at the annual dinner on April 24 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Calgary.
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