Building healthy futures in Indigenous communities

Kate Storey

Kate Storey

Kate Storey is working alongside Indigenous communities across Canada to elevate peer mentoring as a pathway to ‘wholistic’ health—a concept that honours the totality of the person—and wellbeing.

Storey’s research focuses on strategies to reduce health inequities, promote wellbeing and create healthy communities. She is involved in at least half a dozen school- and community-based projects in Alberta and beyond, but one of the most successful is the Indigenous Youth Mentoring Program (IYMP).

IYMP is a ‘wholistic,’ peer-led healthy living program for Indigenous students that started in Manitoba more than a decade ago and expanded into Alberta in 2016, under Storey’s leadership and through established relationships with communities.

With support from WCHRI, the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and other partners, it operates in 37 Alberta communities, the most of any province. Each program is grounded in local context and traditions, with youth, community leaders and Elders guiding the design of the activities.

High school students are recruited as mentors and meet weekly to provide healthy snacks, physical activities and relationship-building activities for elementary students. “It’s an after-school program but it’s so much deeper than that,” says Storey, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and Stollery Science Lab Distinguished Researcher. “It’s built on the strength of communities. The foundation is an Indigenous model of resilience, focusing on empowerment, leadership and belonging.”

Youth are key to creating a culture of wellness. The youth voice is so powerful.”

Although programming had to move online over the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1,500 children, 750 mentors and 50 young adult leaders were involved in IYMP across Canada in the 2019-2020 school year.

Those numbers are likely to grow significantly over the next five years. The Toronto-based LEAP I Pecaut Centre for Social Impact recently selected IYMP as one of 11 social

ventures it will support through its Healthy Futures accelerator, which scales up innovative programs that have proven successful in helping Canadians develop a healthier lifestyle.

The support will help IYMP expand the breadth of its current programming and possibly double the number of communities taking part, to 100 or more.

Indigenous peoples are the youngest and fastest-growing segment of Canada’s population; their health is vital for the future. However, Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by poor health, which ultimately contributes to decreased quality of life and shorter life expectancy. The risk of developing type 2 diabetes is far higher, with Indigenous children making up half of all new type 2 diabetes diagnoses in pediatric diabetes clinics. Indigenous children and youth also struggle with health issues related to obesity, with rates of almost 20 per cent among six- to 14-year-olds living off-reserve. The root causes of these inequities are broad and are directly linked to the lasting effects of colonization.

Storey believes many earlier health interventions have been ineffective because they focused too much on proximal factors and were deficit-based. “The answers to improved health lie within the community, and honour local Indigenous knowledges and teachings,” says Storey. “Youth are key to creating a culture of wellness. The youth voice is so powerful.”

The impact of IYMP can be seen in the smiling faces of the participants, but just as important, she says, is the difference it has made in the lives of the high school mentors, who have gained leadership, high school credits—and sometimes career pathways and life skills—working with the younger children.

Storey is funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.

Kate Storey