Connecting Indigenous communities to health care

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Connecting Indigenous communities to health care

Toronto, June 29, 2020

By Amber Daugherty

Jennefer Simo
Jennefer Simo

Jennefer Simo builds bridges. As a community support worker in the Emergency Department at St. Michael’s Hospital, she connects Indigenous patients in downtown Toronto to health care providers.

“Trust is a big factor in the Indigenous community,” she said, “and because of some of the things people in our community have gone through, they may not feel confident opening up, speaking to or relying on health care providers – which is a shame because then they don’t get the care they need.”

In her role, Simo supports patients as they move across multiple units in the hospital. Twice a month, she leads smudging ceremonies, a traditional ceremony practiced by some Indigenous peoples that involves burning sacred medicines to purify and cleanse negative energy.

“My name has become very well-known which I’m amazed at,” she said. “I receive emails from people I don’t even know saying, ‘One day I really want to meet you,’ or, ‘I’m sending somebody over.’ People call down from different floors to say they’re looking for me because they have someone who needs this support and it has really touched my heart to know that I can help people like that.”

First Nations, Indigenous and Métis peoples experience inequalities in access to health care in Canada, and also experience higher rates of disease and related mortality. A 2018 report from the Public Health Agency of Canada found that Indigenous peoples are more likely to have arthritis, asthma, diabetes, obesity, tuberculosis and certain types of cancer than other demographic groups.

Simo’s work helps support broader system change; as a member of Indigenous Community Advisory Panel at Unity Health, she helps implement recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her work in the panel has supported learning opportunities for staff and physicians at Unity Health Toronto, including the Kairos Blanket exercise which allows participants the opportunity to better understand Canadian-Indigenous history.

“Education is one of the biggest components to facilitate a better patient experience and ensure that patients’ needs are being met,” said Simo, who previously worked as private caregiver at Providence Healthcare. “It is absolutely necessary because it helps with spreading awareness, understanding and compassion.”

The job can be taxing – especially because Indigenous history isn’t always well-known. But she said she’s hopeful that the work she’s supporting will lead to better health care experiences for Indigenous people.

“My mother was an advocate for Indigenous Peoples – she used to carry the flags and is very proud to be Indigenous,” she said. “I kind of took after her. I feel it’s important that we have people who advocate for cultural safety. It’s really important that people can learn about these types of things to help make change.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

About Unity Health Toronto

Unity Health Toronto, comprised of Providence Healthcare, St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital, works to advance the health of everyone in our urban communities and beyond. Our health network serves patients, residents and clients across the full spectrum of care, spanning primary care, secondary community care, tertiary and quaternary care services to post-acute through rehabilitation, palliative care and long-term care, while investing in world-class research and education. For more information, visit

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