Indigenous-informed Sexual Assault Volunteers at the Ready

A new pilot program to improve the cultural safety of Indigenous people who experience sexualized violence has graduated its first group of Indigenous-informed sexual assault support volunteers. 

The new program is a collaboration between the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), Nanaimo Family Life and Island Health’s Central Island Forensic Nurse Examiner Program. The volunteers are working alongside Forensic Nurse Examiners at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital (NRGH) to provide cultural and emotional support to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. 

“Having these services available in partnership with the FNHA and community organizations shows that we can help survivors get the care they need in a safe, respectful space,” said Grace Lore, Parliamentary Secretary for Gender Equity. “My thanks to the recently-graduated volunteers—your role provides support and dignity and creates a safer place for Indigenous women in our health system.

Kathleen Harris, Manager of Cultural Safety at Island Health, is passionate about helping to create a health care system for Indigenous people that is culturally informed as well as culturally safe.

“Many Indigenous survivors of sexual assault feel the emergency department is not a safe place, due to a lack of understanding of current and intergenerational traumatic impacts of colonialism, “ said Harris. “ By improving the cultural safety and dignity of sexual assault services, and by reducing stigmatization and real and perceived racism and discrimination inherent in health systems for Indigenous people, we can work to re-build trust in health services as a safe place.” 

The First Nations Health Authority funded the pilot program, which provided training materials, honorariums, and funding for the full time coordinator.

“The volunteer support workers took part in an eight-week training program founded on love, kindness, respect and connection,” said Esther Charlie, Program Coordinator. “They learned about Indigenous culture, spirituality and healing practices, and how to offer emotional support during a survivor’s greatest time of need”, she said. 

For Madelyn Worth, a graduate of the Indigenous-informed sexual assault response program, the experience of participating in the eight-week training program was extremely powerful and incredibly therapeutic.

“I can’t say enough about how truly amazing this program is and how fortunate I was to learn about this volunteer opportunity. I’ve never felt more like myself and living the life I was meant to live than while doing this work”, she said. 

The volunteers are now actively working alongside the experienced forensic nurse examiners at NRGH providing cultural and emotional comfort and support to all genders and races. They also offer to speak with survivors of next steps and supports available outside of the hospital setting.

Worth has been called out to assist with several sexual assault cases at NRGH since completing the program.

“It is a tremendous honour to be with these extremely strong people who are coming forward to get help during their most difficult time,” she said. “It can be unbelievably difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. We believe them and remind them that it’s not their fault and that no matter what, no one ever deserves to be assaulted.”

A survivor of a sexual assault who was supported by an Indigenous-informed sexual assault volunteer at NRGH shared her recent experience.

“I was so scared when I arrived at the hospital but Annie was the kindest, warmest and most lovely woman I have ever met. I appreciate how she made me feel safe during a time when I didn’t really feel safe, but because of her support I left the hospital feeling a lot better about myself.”

Aimee Falkenberg, Coordinator of the FNE program for Central and North Island said having these volunteers available to provide emotional and cultural support for all survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence is a huge help to the FNE’s working at NRGH.

“Unfortunately we see many sexual assault cases, sometimes daily. Enhancing patient examinations by creating space for holistic, culturally safe healing for survivors will not only help the survivor, it also allows for connections within the community and creates a survivor-focused response that is all inclusive and compassionate.” 

To learn more about Island Health’s forensic nursing program and to watch the 4-part video series about forensic nursing: