AUNDECK OMNI KANING – Pamela Williamson concluded her nearly 15-year journey as executive director of Noojmowin Teg Health Centre on Friday, having grown the agency’s stature and offerings considerable in that time.
“I’m very proud of this organization, what we’ve developed, and as marginalized people it really is important that we have something that is culturally relevant,” Ms. Williamson told The Expositor on July 2, her penultimate day as executive director.
She joined the organization in October of 2005 after a career in higher education administration, the field in which she holds a master’s degree and a PhD.
Ms. Williamson and her husband Dave (the chief administrative officer for the Northeast Town) had been working in Sault Ste. Marie but were pining to return to their home of Manitoulin Island where they had a camp. Ms. Williamson grew up in M’Chigeeng.
After arriving, she was asked to become the interim band manager at Sheguiandah First Nation—probably the busiest job she has ever had, Ms. Williamson said. Soon, the executive director posting at Noojmowin Teg opened and peers encouraged her to apply.
“It wasn’t in education so I didn’t think I’d get the job, but fortunately I had lots of experience in administration. That job has probably been the best one of my career; I feel very lucky,” she said.
The health centre was small and only had 13 staffers at that time. There was a single physician, one nurse practitioner, a dietitian, a traditional co-ordinator, the child nutrition program and a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) program.
Now, Noojmowin Teg offers diabetes programming, including foot care, an elders’ program, aging at home services, mental health and addictions services, counselling, child programs and projects like Local Food Manitoulin that promote food sovereignty.
Staff numbers have grown to 60 people including 1.6 full-time-equivalent physicians. The health centre has been affiliated with the Alliance for Healthier Communities in Ontario and is a founding member of the Indigenous Primary Health Care Council which launched this past February.
Collaborations have been key to Ms. Williamson’s role. Noojmowin Teg is a member of the Manitoulin Collaborative, a group of Island health providers that have formally worked together to advocate for Islanders since 2014.
Noojmowin Teg’s status has grown considerably in Ms. Williamson’s tenure. It expanded its main facility in Aundeck Omni Kaning to include a healing lodge in 2016, became recognized by the Canadian Centre for Accreditation as a community-based health and social service provider and expanded to a new satellite facility in Espanola.
Modern First Nations health services have revolutionized old models when health services were nearly all provided through hospitals and public health. Many of Noojmowin Teg’s current services were only offered in Sudbury, a considerable barrier to access.
“Indigenous health organizations were created by the First Nations; we are their baby. They wanted medical services and traditional services so the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising and Wiikwemkoong partnered on the proposal that eventually created Noojmowin Teg in 1997,” said Ms. Williamson.
Working with health directors at various First Nations has been very rewarding for Ms. Williamson who said their feedback and relationships have shaped the future of Noojmowin Teg.
“That’s been a real secret, working together. We always made sure our program staff worked with community partners, because they know their communities better than anybody and will help us to deliver programs more effectively,” she said.
Ms. Williamson said Indigenous health providers are so effective because they approach health from a holistic view and that one’s health problems cannot be solved by only focusing on one aspect of the self.
As incoming executive director Danielle Wilson has begun transitioning into her new role, Ms. Williamson has been compiling background information and materials to help her adjust to the position.
Ms. Williamson encouraged her successor to listen to the insights of the strong staff base and use their expertise to help guide the future direction of the health centre.
“I get a sense that she’s a very good person, good hearted, so combining that with her capabilities and experience, she’s going to do fine,” said Ms. Williamson, adding that it was a “darn good idea” to get another Indigenous woman as executive director.
Ms. Wilson said the transition has been challenging due to COVID-19 with the two only having one in-person meeting; however, they have been speaking virtually on a regular basis.
“Pam has been so organized that it has made the transition seamless. After almost 15 years with (Noojmowin Teg), she has done so much for this health center and has been very patient and diligent in sharing all the information so that I can continue the work she is happily leaving behind,” said Ms. Wilson.
Her initial priorities will be adjusting the health centre’s services to the realities of a post-COVID world and officially launching the sexual assault/domestic violence forensic testing clinic this fall.
Ms. Williamson said she plans to use her newfound downtime to continue learning and exploring new topics, as well as enjoying the warm summer months while they last.