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Photo Credit To Vancouver Island University. Joan Frenchy, left, and Amanda Seymour are both working as health care assistants after finishing a unique program at VIU Cowichan that combines technical training with wrap-around supports.

The Kw’am Kw’um Shhwuli (Strong Health, Well-being) Health Care Assistant program at VIU Cowichan combines technical training with wraparound supports and Hul’qumi’num language lessons to help move students into high-demand careers.

Duncan, BC: A unique new program at Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) Cowichan Campus that combines Health Care Assistant training and Indigenous language and culture teachings is filling a need in the community. 

Amanda Seymour began working at The Lodge on 4th in Ladysmith, a complex-care facility for seniors, before she even graduated from the program. She loves her job. 

“I look forward to going to work. I have a very patient and compassionate personality, and a natural gift for caring for people,” says Seymour. “The more I get to know residents, the more enjoyable work is. It’s almost like investing in a friendship.” 

She loves learning about her clients’ preferences and hearing their stories, and is thankful to the program for giving her the opportunity to move into a rewarding career. 

“I am so happy I took this opportunity,” says Seymour. “I have four kids and the thought of going into debt held me back from doing this in the past.” 

The Kw’am Kw’um Shhwuli (Strong Health, Well-being) Health Care Assistant program covered tuition and books for 18 students to get specialized training in working with and supporting the needs of First Nations peoples within a variety of health care settings. Funding was provided to VIU, Cowichan Tribes and Stz’uminus First Nation by the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training to deliver the program. 

To ensure success, the program was delivered in a three-phased approach, starting with adult basic education upgrading and Hul’qumi’num language lessons; then moving into the one-year Health Care Assistant certificate training; and finishing with eight weeks of workshops and field trips to support transitions to the workplace. Students began in February 2018 and graduated in December. 

“It’s unique in that we took a university program and built into it the components that our First Nations community partners identified as critical to meet the their needs and ensure success for their students,” says Nancy Hamilton, Administrative Coordinator for the program. “The upgrading was critical in allowing students who might not typically have met the entrance requirements to get ready to apply to the program, and students were able to connect with Elders and community supports throughout the program. Training more people in this industry is critical as we face an increasing shortage of health care workers.” 

Seymour says the study skills students were taught in the first phase of the program helped her handle the large amount of reading and writing involved in the HCA program, and she finished with high grades she was proud of. The Elder support was also invaluable to her success.  

“There were days I thought of quitting because of the intensity of the program, but the Elders were there to encourage us to finish,” she says. 

By the time students graduated in December, 14 of the 18 students were already working in the health-care industry. They are now all employed. 

Jennie Thomas, Social Development Manager with Cowichan Tribes, says the program addresses a critical succession planning need in her community, as there are many staff reaching retirement age. 

“Our long-term goal is to ensure there are Health Care Aides who are trained to support our Elders,” she says. “I’m hoping a lot of the students come back and work for Cowichan Tribes.” 

Hamilton says given the community need for more health-care workers, VIU may apply for funding to run another Indigenous HCA program again in the near future. The campus is currently running a similar program – again a partnership between Cowichan Tribes, the Stz’uminus First Nation and VIU – to train more Indigenous early childhood educators


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