Head of Ongomiizwin’s community connections helps guide COVID-19 First Nations response work
Meet Indigenous Scholar Melanie MacKinnon
Melanie MacKinnon [BN/96] has been working tirelessly over the past year advocating for proper response for First Nations communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It became very clear to First Nation health-care leaders that we needed to make sure our communities did not fall through the cracks between the provincial and federal health-care systems,” MacKinnon, a member of the Misipawistik Cree Nation, told UM Today in a phone interview.
MacKinnon took on the role as the lead for clinical operations with the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. The team “blurs organizational lines,” MacKinnon explains, and includes professional leads for social supports, economic supports, public safety, child and family services support, and mental health and addiction.
“My role in particular assisted with the creation of the rapid response team, coordinated through Ongomiizwin Health Services, which is responsible for rapid testing, outbreak management and additional public health support,” she explains.
More recently, MacKinnon’s team opened the Indigenous testing and contact tracing site with wrap-around social supports, in partnership with Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and the Winnipeg Health Region. “We are really proud to also support urban Indigenous community members as well.”
The latest challenge faced by the team has been timely vaccination rollouts and distribution. “Similar to the rapid response team, we knew that access to surge vaccination supports was going to be limited for Manitoba First Nations communities, as our current Indigenous health workers are gainfully or overly employed,” she says.
Despite the limited access, MacKinnon says they’ve expanded their roster of vaccinators through our networks within RFHS and First Nation health organizations, and are on track towards completing the first round of doses to all 63 First Nations communities and 21 adjacent Northern Affairs communities by mid-April.
Much of MacKinnon’s contributions to Indigenous health during the pandemic has garnered her recognition as the 2021 Frontier Achievement Award recipient, as well as the NHL’s Co-First Stars of the week.
Building community connections
MacKinnon credits the 15 years of community and relationship building in her career as the foundation that prepared her to step into the role of executive director at Ongomiizwin– Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing, as well as her work on the COVID-19 response team.
After graduating with a bachelor of nursing, MacKinnon spent six years as a primary care nurse. Shortly after, she was asked to take on a leadership role by the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and quickly learned about the broader clinical operations at an administrative level. She also worked with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in a policy and political advisory role for health care and sovereignty, and took on private consultations that extended her community relationships before returning to the University of Manitoba.
MacKinnon was recuperating from partaking in a Sundance Ceremony in summer 2010 when she received a call from Dr. Catherine Cook, current vice president (Indigenous) at UM.
“I spent my time at ceremony praying for guidance to continue helping where I may be needed most.” At the time, Dr. Cook offered MacKinnon a one-year term position at what was then called the Northern Medical Unit. “I was the first nurse and the first First Nations person to take on the role,” she says. “It was a step forward for the unit, and I think it paid off.”
Just over a decade later, MacKinnon has been a part of much growth within the unit, including the launch of Ongomiizwin within the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences in 2017 that included “a mandate to provide leadership and advance excellence in research, education and health services to achieve health and wellness for Indigenous peoples and to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action within the Faculty.” Soon after the department’s launch, MacKinnon stepped into the role as the full-time head of Ongomiizwin in April 2020.
“I am really fortunate to come from a family of leaders and a bloodline of matriarchs and strong women, and was always raised to be that helper, that leader, and to be of service as my grandmother and mother were for their communities,” she says.
During her leadership, MacKinnon is reminded about how rewarding health careers can be. “There is so much room along the professional continuum, from clinician, to administrator, or teacher, or policy-maker, or systems change agent, or advocate.”
As for students considering a profession in health care, MacKinnon shares the advice from her father that continues to inform the entirety of her career: “Don’t forget where you come from, be who you are, and look after your people.”