#ImmigrationMatters in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia – Healing from the heart

#ImmigrationMatters in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

Dr. Riaan van der Wart blends traditional and contemporary medicine to serve First Nations communities.


Healing from the heart

Dr. van der Wart (left) being smudged by his wife (right) during a traditional Fire Ceremony on Haida Gwaii.

Photo credit: Elim Sly Hooton

Originally from South Africa, Dr. Riaan van der Wart’s medical career is greatly influenced by traditional healers. He has travelled the world, learning how different cultures approach health care and healing.

With a profound respect for Indigenous culture and traditions, he is inspired by the way Indigenous people view health care, which he refers to as “medicine of the heart”. According to these communities, healing comes from having a strong sense of belonging to the community and honouring ancestral heritage.

In 2007, Dr. van der Wart immigrated to British Columbia’s North Coast, where there was a shortage of medical professionals, and later to Haida Gwaii. His health care practice extends to surrounding First Nations communities.

Vernon Williams, a Haida elder, says Dr. Van Der Wart “is determined to make a change so that people feel supported and their voices heard.”

Dr. van der Wart explores the intersection of science and spirituality, developing new medical approaches that bridge Western medicine with Indigenous practices to improve patient care in Indigenous communities.

Dr. Menard, a health care colleague, says, “When you work in a rural area like Haida Gwaii, you have to wear many hats. We not only do family medicine, but also do emergency care, house visits and even deliver babies. Riaan has a very caring approach to patient care that goes beyond Western medicine training.”

Inspired by the First Nations tradition of storytelling, Dr. van der Wart filmed a documentary called "The Family Doctor” to encourage conversations about mental health, which he hopes will lead to improved patient care.

Despite the challenges brought on by COVID-19, Dr. van der Wart continues to advocate for the health care needs of Indigenous communities in northern British Columbia.

Immigration profile: Canada’s health-care sector

Quick facts:

  • Immigrants account for 1 out of every 4 health-care sector workers.
  • In Canada, immigrants make up 37% of pharmacists, 36% of physicians, 39% of dentists, 23% of registered nurses, and 35% of nurse aides and related occupations.
  • More than 40% of newcomers to Canada between 2011 and 2016 who were working in the health-care sector were employed in the important areas of nursing and residential care facilities, as well as home health-care services.

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