FNHA and the NCCEH: supporting Indigenous communities through a knowledge translation partnership

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020
Casey Neathway

In October 2013, the First Nations communities in British Columbia took a historic step forward in self-determination of health services, when programs were transferred from Health Canada’s First Nations Inuit Health Branch (FNIHB) to the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA). One of the programs that transferred was Environmental Public Health Services, leading to Canada’s only province-wide, First Nations-led environmental health program. More than six years after this transfer, FNHA’s “community-driven, Nation-based” approach to delivery of services has provided opportunities to work with First Nations and partners to identify current and emerging concerns and provide appropriate advice, guidance, and support.

Given the ever-evolving nature of the field of environmental health, collaboration and partnerships are key to ensuring our work is timely, relevant, and evidence-based. FNHA and NCCEH were able to formalize this partnership approach by entering into a secondment agreement in which an FHNA Environmental Health Officer (EHO) worked remotely with NCCEH staff to develop knowledge translation products and more generally exchange information on topics of concern. The secondment provided flexibility in both time and location, and through the partnership, increased capacity within the Health Authority on knowledge translation of environmental health topics. While topics were chosen based on FNHA’s interaction and conversations with First Nations locally, the products of the secondment were intended to be of use to NCCEH’s national audience.  

By working in partnership with First Nations, FNHA EHOs brought forward concerns about impacts of climate change on traditional food safety to the NCCEH who, in turn, produced a literature search and analysis to provide specific, fact-based guidance. To ensure that the guidance incorporated concerns from First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities from all regions, the strong connections of NCCEH were leveraged to gather feedback from environmental health practitioners across the country. The resulting guidance document and webinar speak to concerns that were brought forth directly from Indigenous communities and individuals.

The secondment also provided an opportunity to share and expand upon lessons learned in community-based radon testing in First Nations. This work, which was published in Environmental Health Review, explored the value of community champions in developing and delivering environmental health programs. The community champion approach presented in the paper, which focuses on community-led public health interventions, can be useful in communities of nearly any size and structure, and for topic areas beyond just radon. FNHA has also successfully applied this model in working with First Nations to support the safe processing of traditional foods. Working with the NCCEH’s established professional networks provided additional insight into how other jurisdictions have been working with municipalities and First Nations on radon testing at the community level.

First Nations have inhabited the lands that are now British Columbia since time immemorial. FNHA works as a wellness partner to support continued and improved environmental health on these lands. Through the partnership with the NCCEH, FNHA has been able to explore topics of emerging concern with a greater detail and thoroughness, with full participation and inclusion of First Nations knowledge holders. Likewise, the NCCEH has gained valuable insight into emerging environmental health challenges for BC communities, while also having access to local knowledge and FNHA expertise for solutions.

While the secondment was a time-limited arrangement, the collaborative partnership is ongoing, with further opportunities to examine emerging environmental public health issues as diverse as emergency management and shellfish contamination. This sharing of knowledge and joint participation, alongside other agencies including BCCDC and Health Canada, provides the best opportunity to ensure that we learn together and provide service delivery excellence.

About the author

Casey Neathway is the Interior Regional Manager of Environmental Public Health Services for First Nations Health Authority. A certified public health inspector, he holds degrees in cellular, molecular, and microbiology and environmental health and leads a team of environmental health professionals to deliver services to fifty-four First Nations in the Interior of British Columbia. Mr. Neathway is also the President of the BC/YT Branch of the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors (CIPHI).