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Collingwood grad working overseas to help Indigenous communities

People of Collingwood: Justine Crittenden, Our Lady of the Bay graduate and international Indigenous health advocate
2021-07-16 POCCrittenden JO-001
Justine Crittenden is an Our Lady of the Bay graduate and international Indigenous health advocate.

Her experiences with her rural, South Georgian Bay roots has led a former New Lowell resident to the other side of the world bringing medical care to Indigenous communities.

For this week’s edition of People of Collingwood we spoke with Justine Crittenden, an Our Lady of the Bay graduate and international Indigenous health advocate.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I lived in New Lowell from birth to the age of 17 when I moved to Toronto for university.

Q: Where did you attend school?

A: I went to elementary school at Our Lady of the Assumption in New Lowell and high school at Jean Vanier Catholic High School (now called Our Lady of the Bay).

Q: Where did life take you after high school?

A: I moved to Toronto, initially as a student in biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.

I had a dream of helping to create medical technology that could be used by communities in developing countries to improve access to life-saving treatment.

However, I quickly realized I was much more passionate about people than machines, so I switched to a science program with a double major in Global Health and African Studies. I had always been interested in African studies and initially dreamed of working with Free the Children.

I had been on a missions trip to Ecuador in South America during Grade 12 and I wanted my next trip to be somewhere in Africa.

As part of my African Studies degree I went on a week-long research trip to Ethiopia, to visit the African Union and various consulates and commissions.

This experience really helped to solidify what I had already learned through my studies, which was the value of local solutions to local issues.

This was a turning point for me, where I stopped focusing on going abroad to help others and instead began to learn about Indigenous health in western countries and how to promote community-led solutions.

Q: You currently live in New Zealand. What made you want to go there?

A: I initially decided to holiday in New Zealand with a good friend from high school.

After spending four months working as an au pair in Auckland, I realized I loved the laid-back lifestyle and the warmer weather.

I came back to Canada for a semester to save some money and get my university courses all sorted and then I transferred my studies to the University of Auckland and finished with a degree in Health Sciences there, specializing in Population Health.

Through my final semesters, I learned a lot about Māori [the Indigenous people of New Zealand] health, which led me to get a job with a small Māori medical clinic after graduation.

Q: Can you talk about some of your passions?

A: African Studies taught me a lot about the harms of colonization and continued harms of having western nations try to dictate solutions to developing nations.

My focus then turned to Indigenous health. I was initially shocked that in countries like Canada and New Zealand, with excellent public health care systems, the health outcomes for Indigenous people could be so much worse than for other ethnicities.

Unlike in developing countries, the problem was not with a lack of money or infrastructure or trained staff, but rather with the way the system was set up to privilege some patients while disadvantaging others.

I could honestly talk about this all day, but I guess it was the lack of fairness that really sparked my interest, along with the feeling that we had the ability to do so much better.

Q: You've taken on a leadership role during the pandemic. Can you talk about it a little bit?

A: When COVID-19 first came to New Zealand, we went into an incredibly strict lockdown while we transformed our health care system to both cope with the anticipated wave of COVID patients and continue to provide as much service to our usual patients as possible.

I was part of a small group (10 regional hospital staff) who ran the emergency operations centre from mid-March to mid-May.

We knew that Māori health outcomes were the most likely to suffer in both groups of patients, so we began planning to keep Māori communities safe. I led a lot of the mapping of communities with high health needs and overlaid this with an understanding of where we had COVID outbreaks in our communities.

We also worked hard to ensure our COVID swabbing rates were equitable between ethnic groups and we targeted any communities with low testing rates. I deployed a team of Māori swabbers to communities with a high proportion of Māori residents, where they ran swabbing clinics at local kura kaupapa (Māori immersion schools) and marae (Māori cultural/spiritual centres).

Overall, our response was incredibly successful, with minimal Māori cases of COVID-19 and very few deaths. We also kept most of our services running in some capacity and we were able to catch up after the lockdown to ensure our patients received the care they required. We are now using the learnings from COVID swabbing to help plan our vaccine roll-out to continue our focus on Māori health.

Q: What are your interests outside of your work?

A: Outside of work, I have been heavily involved in the community musical theatre scene.

I started a youth theatre group at a local theatre and directed children’s musicals, taught singing, and upskilled some young leaders to take over the program.

I also do yoga, teach aerial fitness (pole, hoops, and sling), and I have a German Shepherd who loves to hike.

Q: What are your goals moving forward?

A: My husband and I have decided to move to Canada sometime in the next year, depending on the state of travel, of course.

This past year and a half has really changed the ease of travel and I value being able to see my family more easily. I hope to be able to use my experience to transform some part of the Ontario health system to make it more equitable and inclusive.

I would also love to get back to my home theatre, Clearview Community Theatre.

Q: How did your life growing up in Collingwood contribute/influence the work you do now?

A: Growing up in a small, rural community gave me a huge appreciation for the value of community connections.

Sports and the arts were a huge part of my upbringing and I definitely sought out community everywhere I moved after that.

I also appreciated that urban solutions didn’t usually work for more remote communities, so I have taken this perspective with me throughout my studies and into my career. I remember the challenges my family and I experienced in trying to access health care, especially after hours or specialist treatments, which has definitely led me to focus a lot on rural and under-served communities.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like people in Collingwood to know about you?

A: When I was first nominated for the Outstanding Graduates award (through the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board), I had reservations that others would imagine that my path was a straight line and that I always knew what I was doing.

I think it’s really important to highlight that my studies and my career have been all over the place and I’ve changed my path a lot.

I remember switching out of engineering at university and thinking that my clear career path was ruined, but it was absolutely the right choice for me.

I would encourage young people to allow themselves to make choices and then to change their minds. I’ve learned a lot from the things I did for brief periods and I am much happier for having made the choice to pick another path.

For our feature People of Collingwood, we’ll be speaking with interesting people who are either from or are contributing to the Collingwood community in some way, letting them tell their own stories in their own words. This feature will run on CollingwoodToday every Saturday. If you’d like to nominate or suggest someone to be featured in People of Collingwood, email jessica@villagemedia.ca.




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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 11 years of experience to her role as regional reporter for Village Media, primarily covering County of Simcoe matters, education and features
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