Growing up on Northern Ontario's Wikwemikong reserve in the 1950s, Allison Fisher quickly realized that all Canadians were not created equal.
"Aboriginal people didn't even get the right to vote until the 1960s," notes Allison, now the Executive Director of Ottawa's Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health.
"But I had a mom who was very active in the community and who understood our lack of power and authority, and I watched her fight on our behalf," she continues. "I was very aware that our place was not on equal footing with the rest of society."
Instead of becoming embittered by that reality, Allison got to work. The first task she set for herself after starting work at the Wabano Centre was getting Ottawa's 30,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis people onto the city's cultural and political radar. But given the profound stereotypes about her people held by many non-aboriginals, it was a tough slog.
"We were an invisible people in this city," she remembers frankly.
She also understood that Ottawa's aboriginal population needed a safe, non-judgmental gathering space. "Our people have often come from marginalization and trauma, they are trying to find their identity, they are looking for care, and they need a place like Wabano," says Allison.
Offering total healthcare from an aboriginal perspective - from medical clinics to spiritual care to mental health assistance to social support - Wabano is recognized as the premiere aboriginal health centre in all of Canada. "It is their space, their community; a positive, expressive place that holds the heart of the aboriginal people in this city," Allison explains.
And, while the Centre itself provides excellence in care, Allison's inclusive approach is a big part of what makes Wabano so successful, notes Dr. Andre Lalonde, president of The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada which partners with Wabano on maternal health. "Allison uses her personal and professional passion to create tangible change."
Now more change is coming. In 2012, a new and expanded Wabano building, designed by renowned aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal, will open its doors, providing a striking, contemporary example of what aboriginal Canadians can achieve together.
"The discourse about aboriginal people can still be a difficult one, but the only way to deal with that is to do things in a proud way and do them well. We are not a people who have disappeared," concludes Allison. "We are strong, we contribute, and that is what our centre is all about."
For more information visit www.wabano.com.
Catherine Clark is the host of Beyond Politics on CPAC, airing Sunday nights at 8 p.m.