Leonard Benoit has spent his career as a nurse and community service worker learning the ins and outs of a complex health system. Now, in his latest role, he is using those skills to support First Nations, Inuit and Métis people through their cancer journey.
“Indigenous people in Ontario are disproportionately affected by cancer,” Leonard says. “But stigma and discrimination, language barriers and factors related to past trauma and mistrust of the medical system can prevent people from coming to the hospital for testing and treatment.”
Leonard, who is Qalipu Mi’kmaq from Burgeo, Newfoundland and Labrador, is one of 10 Indigenous patient navigators working across the province. He supports patients at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre and other hospitals in Toronto.
“I’m here for whatever people need,” says Leonard. “I go to appointments and help patients understand their treatment options, connect people with programs and services in their community and with elders who can advise on spiritual matters.” He also advocates for inclusive practices that support the spiritual and cultural needs of Indigenous patients. At Sunnybrook, for example, Leonard has been instrumental in the development of a smudging policy. Smudging is an important Indigenous spiritual and healing practice that involves the burning of sacred medicines like sage, cedar or tobacco.
“My goal is to create a culturally safe experience for my Indigenous brothers and sisters, and to help people through their journey,” Leonard says. “I believe that will help to create the best possible outcomes for Indigenous people.”