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Jaris Swidrovich

Indigenous pharmacist Jaris Swidrovich on better educating pharmacists

Jaris Swidrovich is the first Indigenous faculty pharmacist in Canada. Swidrovich, who is from Yellow Quill First Nation, is a Saulteaux First Nations and Ukrainian man, as well as being a Two-Spirit person. He spoke with us about why pharmacy needs to change to better serve Indigenous peoples, how he’s working to make that happen and why Instagram is helping.

Jaris Swidrovich is the first Indigenous faculty pharmacist in Canada.

He hails from Yellow Quill First Nation and is Saulteaux First Nation and Ukrainian, as well as being Two-Spirit. He spoke with us about why pharmacy needs to change to better serve Indigenous Peoples, how he’s working to make that happen and why Instagram is helping.

You’ve recently moved to Toronto for your new position as an assistant professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto. How has that been? 

“It’s been wonderful—my position, the faculty, the people, the program, and, of course, the city. I lived here for my post-baccalaureate PharmD program, from 2011 to 2013. So I’m familiar with the city from that time, and somewhat familiar with the faculty, too. It’s been really great to come back.

“But even though I know Toronto, I've lived in Saskatoon basically my whole life, so I’m missing my friends and family. I’m particularly missing my mother—she was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer, so it really weighs on me to not be there  for her and the rest of my family. 

“I’m lucky to have my dog Leonard, my golden retriever. He’s almost two years old, and weighs 110 pounds. He’s too big to fly, so I rented an SUV to move out here, and we made the trip together.” 

You’re the first Indigenous pharmacy professor in Canada. What’s that like?

“The first and the only one. That hasn’t come too much into play with my new role at UofT, but moving forward, we have plans, especially as we engage in curriculum renewal and revision. We'll be looking at how to integrate more Indigenous content and anti-racist perspectives, and recruiting and retaining Indigenous students in the undergraduate program and graduate studies.”

Read: Innovators: Building a better home for indigenous health

And outside of UofT? 

“I’m involved in some other initiatives nationwide, too. I’m the creator of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] special interest group [for the Association of Faculties of Pharmacy of Canada]—that’s been running for a number of years now. We have representatives from every single Faculty of Pharmacy in Canada, and we work collaboratively and frequently together to ensure that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action are being enforced and realized in our schools. 

“I also just sent an email to as many Indigenous pharmacists as I could identify across Canada, to try and create some sort of representative body for Indigenous pharmacists in Canada, with some funding from the CPhA [Canadian Pharmacists Association]—like those that nurses and social workers and some other disciplines have. I would love to have a mandate and a name, and announce ourselves by National Indigenous History Month in June.”

What made you want to be a pharmacist? 

“It took awhile for me to understand that my calling was to be an Indigenous leader in pharmacy. I was actually going to go to university to be a teacher—I wanted to teach drama and physics. But then I was talking to folks who said that it would be really difficult to find a teaching job in Saskatoon. And I was like, well there’s no way I’m leaving my mom—and my Dad and sisters, but really, I’m just a mama’s boy. So I was like okay, I need to find something a little more promising in terms of being guaranteed a job in Saskatoon. 

“I dropped those classes and registered in the prerequisites for medicine, and then, sort of randomly, I applied to pharmacy instead, because someone in my biochemistry class said the applications were due that week, and it was a $75 application fee, and I figured, why not. I got into pharmacy, but I didn’t love it right away—I actually applied for medicine while in my third year of that program. But then, in my fourth year, I had a rotation in the hospital and I fell in love with it. 

“There, I noticed that my assumption that nurses and physicians and other healthcare professionals knew what we knew as pharmacists was wrong. They absolutely do not. I was being constantly approached by medical students and residents and attending physicians and nurses for help with patient cases, and their care, and their discharge plans, and I was like, 'Wow, OK.' I realized that the knowledge that I had was very unique to my own discipline, and needed. 

“Also, I had no Indigenous mentors in Pharmacy—I still don't have Indigenous mentors in pharmacy, although I would say some up-and-coming young folks, they are my mentors. But going through pharmacy, I never did, and I didn’t see us represented in the discipline at all and I felt a sense of responsibility to make that difference.”

Read: CMA Foundation to provide $1 mil grant Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada to kickstart national mentorship program

You have over 10,000 followers on Instagram @jarisoftheprairies. How did that start? 

“During the pandemic, I felt like I was missing the opportunity to educate people. So in June of 2020 I started creating one post a day on my Instagram for Indigenous History Month. And I gained thousands of followers during that time. There was a huge jump, and lots of people would make comments or send messages like, 'Thank you so much,' 'You summarize this so easily' and, 'I can’t believe I didn't learn this in school.' And, 'Can I share this in my class?' Or, 'Can I make this into a poster?' And I was like, 'Whoa, crazy! So this is helpful. I guess I’ll keep doing this.' And I figured, why not use this avenue to help make those changes, outside of the classroom. It’s still my personal profile, but there’s also educational pieces because that’s who I am, I’m a teacher.” 

I know your family is also Ukrainian. What do you think of the conflict happening over there? Do you have relatives there? 

“I don’t have any immediate family there that I’m aware of, but with or without family connections, I’m just devastated. It’s horrifying. I’m an anti-war person. And a lot of that fighting is from resource extraction and capitalism and industries, and that’s at the centre of my stance as an Indigenous person—to say, stop eating away at the planet that gives us life. It’s just all really upsetting.”

You’ve said that pharmacists have an important role to play in helping close the health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. How would you like to see that happen? 

“We know that pharmacists are the most accessible health professionals and are often ranked as the first or second most trusted professionals—of any kind, not even within healthcare. And right now, accessing healthcare has not always been easy for Indigenous Peoples. We know that racism is a frequent occurrence, whether that’s interpersonal racism, systemic racism or epistemic racism, like Indigenous knowledge systems not being seen as equivalent to other ones. 

“So we know that anyone who is on medication will come into contact with a pharmacist at some point, in some way. Often they will see their pharmacist more frequently than their physicians. And the more pharmacists, and pharmacy technicians, and pharmacy assistants know about Indigenous Peoples, about history, and why things are the way they are, the better equipped they will be to provide the best care possible to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and their families.” 

Read: New film highlights Indigenous Canadians' experience with the healthcare system

“I never place any shame or blame on individual people or pharmacists, but rather in our systems, in the gaps from kindergarten through grade 12, and then certainly within pharmacy schools. Because of the lack of content taught in all those programs, people can graduate and be practitioners with a considerable deficiency in knowledge for how to care for the people who live with the biggest deficiencies in healthcare outcomes in this country. Can you imagine if we only gave student pharmacists an hour of diabetes education, and then expected them to be great practitioners for folks with diabetes? So how can we give maybe an hour, if anything, in pharmacy programs on Indigenous content and expect them to be able to provide the best possible care to Indigenous clients. 

“The TRC Special Interest Group that I created and co-chair was approached by the Canadian Council for Accreditation of Pharmacy Programs, and we are in the early stages of engagement with them to ensure there are adequate standards for the new revisions of their accreditation standards, to basically mandate a certain baseline, in ways that go beyond curricular outcomes and include skills-based training, because that’s what was called for from residential school survivors in the TRC.” 

How does this feel for you, to be trying to drive all this change at once? 

“I feel very hopeful and optimistic, and also responsible. I know that there are many other Indigenous pharmacists, but in the academic setting, I am the only one on the staff and faculty side that can affect these changes right here, right now. So there's a strong sense of responsibility to Indigenous Peoples across the country. It's more than a project, you know—it’s not like creating a new way of providing online lectures or a new assessment strategy. There’s a deep history for what has gone on and what will likely continue to go on, in some ways, that I feel quite responsible for. Also, I consider the sacrifices and resiliency demonstrated by my own family and ancestors who did what they did, so that I could be in a position like this—my mom is a survivor of the ’60s scoop and my grandmother and great-grandmother were survivors of the residential school system. I have to honour everything that has happened before so I can do this work.” 

Read: Self-reflection and learning: resources for healthcare professionals marking the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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