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Health ᒥᔪᐱᒫᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Former CHB chair Petawabano twice recognized for her leadership in healthcare

BY Ben Powless Mar 2, 2023

Former Cree Health Board Chairperson Bella Petawabano was awarded with two distinctions during the past few years, she revealed in an interview with the Nation

Unreported until now, Petawabano revealed that she received the Excellence in Health Leadership Award from the First Nations Health Managers Association in November 2020. More recently, she was honoured with a governance award by the Canadian Red Cross, on whose board of directors she sat from 2018 until 2022. 

“I was surprised. I didn’t expect to receive an award like that. I was very honoured,” she said. “It’s one thing to be recognized in your own community for your contributions, but it’s another thing to be recognized at a national level. I’ll keep this award close to my heart.”

The Red Cross supports communities in times of disaster, including floods, earthquakes, fires, and most recently, during the pandemic. The organization works with sister agencies across the globe, making up what it calls the largest humanitarian network in the world with organizations in 192 countries. 

Petawabano said the Red Cross wanted to invite an Indigenous person onto their board of directors. Someone recommended she be invited, owing to her position as CHB chair. 

During its national general assembly, Petawabano worked with Dr. Darlene Kitty and former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine to deliver a presentation on cultural safety. “I was proud and privileged to have that experience, to be part of the board of directors,” she said. 

She said the organization ensured Indigenous protocols were followed when going into Indigenous communities, such as when they responded to the 2015 Fort McMurray wildfire, which impacted several nearby First Nations. 

“They’re very mindful of making sure they’re involving the First Nations in the work they do. They don’t just go in and do what they think is best,” she explained. “They have them involved from beginning to end.”

Petawbano said that it reinforced the work she and the health board were already undertaking. In 2018, the CHB visited emergency response units near Toronto that were designed for use in remote areas to coordinate medical, logistical and communications responses. 

The CHB purchased two of the units and 600 cots from the Red Cross, to increase response capacity during wildfires and flooding in Cree communities. They help keep evacuees in Eeyou Istchee rather than sending them to places like Val-d’Or. Petawabano said the pandemic was not on anybody’s mind at the time. 

“What we wanted to do was keep people in Eeyou Istchee so if ever that happened, we wanted to be able to have a mobile-hospital type of setting we can set up in another community and have people from the other community impacted by whatever disaster, along with the medical staff of their clinic,” she explained.

However, after Covid struck, the CHB deployed the emergency response units to the Chisasibi hospital. Petawabano said it was the only time the units were deployed so far. 

The Red Cross was present in remote Indigenous communities across Canada, delivering supplies, testing and conducting vaccinations. But Petawabano said Cree communities did not meet the level of need, thanks to the response of health authorities. That’s the reason Petawabano received the other award back in 2020.

“The Cree Health Board started working on this in January [of 2020], looking at how we can respond with our resources, knowing the state and wellbeing of the Cree Nation. But it wasn’t until mid-March that we all got together with the Cree Nation Government to talk about what we were going to do,” she said.

As a result of the actions taken by Cree authorities at all levels, the communities were less affected by the pandemic than elsewhere. 

Petawabano said she didn’t feel right about boasting about the award while the pandemic was ongoing, however. The award ceremony was also very low-key – a zoom presentation online. 

“I had to do my acceptance of the award by video, which I did and I just sent it in. So, I sat in my living room and I watched it by myself,” she said with a laugh. 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.