I am the I in IWK – Courtney Pennell, Research Nurse & Project Co-Ordinator

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Courtney Pennell is a proud Mi’kmaq Registered Nurse (RN). Currently, Pennell works within the Centre for Pediatric Pain Research, partnered with the Aboriginal Children’s Hurt and Healing Initiative, but before this she was a nurse with the Hematology, Oncology & Nephrology inpatient unit. She made the switch to research in February of this year after her passion for improving Indigenous health care was recognized while attending a research summit.   

“I was asked to do an opening healing dance for the summit,” says Pennell, “and that’s where I met Dr. Margot Latimer who recruited me on the spot.” Latimer is also an IWK Registered Nurse and specializes in Indigenous pain care. “After the summit she spoke with the VP of Clinical Care, Dr. Annette Elliot-Rose and they completely understood the need to have an Indigenous perspective on how to better connect these communities with IWK care.”  

Pennell grew up in central Halifax, outside of Indigenous community, and refers to herself as an Urban Indigenous person. She credits the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre for teaching her so much about her culture and heritage, an organization that she now works closely with in her research. “My mother is Mi’kmaq First Nation, and we’re from Acadia First Nation. Since I was about 4-years-old, I’ve been connected with the Friendship Centre as a ‘home base’ for my culture. The centre provided me with an outlet to learn; it’s where I learned to drum, sing, dance, some of the Mi’kmaq language and re-connected with my roots.”  

For her research, Pennell consults with Indigenous children and youth to find out why their health concerns are statistically under-addressed in the health care system, specifically about their experiences with treating pain and hurt. Pennell coordinates the project with the Aboriginal Children’s Hurt and Healing Initiative and translates the knowledge found into meaningful ways that the IWK can better serve these populations.  

“When I started my education to become a nurse, I was ignorant to how much discrimination there still is against my people,” says Pennell. “Entering into health care was when I become acutely aware of the real word issues impacting so many Indigenous community members and how much work there is to still be done.”   

Pennell says that being involved in her current research has reignited her passion to help Indigenous communities. “I’ve had this desire within, for a long time, but I just wasn’t sure of which professional avenue to take to make a difference.” As of this past May, Pennell is now also studying to obtain her Masters of Science in Nursing, a move that she and Dr. Latimer believe will help maximize her potential in creating meaningful change.  

“In the Mi’kmaq language there’s no word for ‘pain’,” explains Pennell. “If you can’t even express something in your native tongue, then how are you able explain that using Western tools such as the Pain Scale or to rate your pain?” Pennell and the research team are working to create tools and resources that help Indigenous people better express their experiences so that health professionals can improve the assessment, management and treatment of them.  

As a RN, researcher, student and mother to a 3-year-old boy, Pennell has no shortage of work on her hands, but says that staying connected to her Mi’kmaq roots and knowing that her heavy work is meaningful is what keeps her driven. “As much as I hear all the negative experiences and heavy stories from our research participants, I know that we have to hear them so that we can present that evidence and provoke the change that needs to happen.”              

“I wish people understood more about the real truth of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, our history, and our current battles,” says Pennell. “It’s hard to talk about or be aware of, but we can’t fix it if we don’t acknowledge the painful truths about what has happened historically, and what is continuing to happen.” Pennell says that understanding where a person comes from, their history and culture is the only way to understand the actions and causes of today’s challenges.  

“As health care providers we have a duty to uphold, ethically and morally, in order to ensure that people who come to us for services, are provided with safe spaces and are not put into harms way. We, as a nation,  need to do better in ensuring this happens, specifically for the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.