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  • Writer's pictureShannon Waters

I look white

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

two cedar boughs laying flat
Sacred Cedar, xpey'​. Photo credit: Alex Sutcliffe via

My life is a gift. My journey has a purpose. Who I am brings me honor and responsibility.

I need to use my privilege and my voice to transform the health system from within.

I have needed to write this article for a long time. Respected elders have taught me if you leave something left unsaid, it can weigh on your heart and you can feel it on your chest. In voicing your words you can let the heaviness go.

I am mixed blood. Coast Salish, Indigenous on my mother’s side, and Swedish, Hungarian and Scottish on my father’s side. I look white. I am fair with light brown hair, and was the only one in my family with blue eyes.

I embrace and identify with my Indigeneity. My connection to the land, wholistic perspective, respect for cultural teachings, importance of family relations and my spiritual bond to my ancestors make me who I am.

Woven into my Sense of Self is also the deep trauma that comes with being Indigenous in Canada. The removal from our lands, harm of the residential schools, effect of the sixties scoop, depletion of our languages, and outlawing of our spiritual practices. This trauma weighs heavily on Indigenous minds, bodies and spirits and yields health impacts. But while this legacy is something I learn to live with and heal from, my journey is easier because I look white.

I am a Physician. It was my father’s influence that led me to apply for medical school, and my mother’s influence that encouraged me to finish. Training to be a physician is an exhausting, harrowing and overwhelming experience. I, however, didn’t have the addition of daily racism to deal with like some of my colleagues. I did not hear my classmates or preceptors say things like, “the only reason you got into medical school was to fill a quota”, nor did I get mistaken for the cleaning staff in the doctor’s lounge.

In my twenties I was part of a National Film Board of Canada documentary that examined what it means to have a background of mixed ancestries that cannot be easily categorized. I commented in the film that my background made my life more interesting. I am Indigenous, however, it is not presumed of me. This means racism, stereotypes and biases are not something I am automatically exposed to. There have been times in my life when it has not been safe to identify as Indigenous, and I have made the choice to stay quiet. That safety is not something many in my family benefit from. My Indigeneity is something I can engage others in, rather than have it assumed.

I had a dear maternal aunt who was chronically ill. She would often need to go to our local emergency room, and I would accompany her when I could. She told me that she was treated much better when I was with her. That made me sad and angry. I wanted to do more, but I cannot be there every time I have a family member who needs medical care.

At times I feel in the discussion of being Indigenous in Canada that I should be quiet because I am mixed blood and look white. Indeed, there are times when I should be in the background. But now that I am in my forties I am more fully integrating my teachings about the gifts we receive and how our job is to use them. My life has given me the opportunity to use my voice to make the health system safer from within.

My credibility in my home territory comes in walking this journey throughout my lifetime. Finally writing this, and now sharing it, lightens my load for the journey. My two daughters, who I raise with my loving husband, walk this journey with me. Their courage and resilience is the hope I need.

To our ancestors and the future generations, thank you. Huy ch q’u O’siem.

Originally posted September 29. 2019 on LinkedIn

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