What Makes a Community Health Centre?

When I started in my role with Klinic and SERC (Sexuality Education Resource Centre), almost exactly two years ago this week, I thought I had a fairly reasonable understanding of what defines community health, and subsequently, a community health centre.  I can honestly say that over the last two years I have been surprised by how this topic seems to inspire a significant amount of discussion and debate, while at the same time, highlight important consistencies in the community health centre model world-wide.

I have also had the amazing opportunity to be a board member of not one, but two organizations that are critical in supporting the voices of community health here in Manitoba, and nationally. The first of those is the Manitoba Association of Community Health (MACH), and the second is the Canadian Association of Community Health Centres (CACHC).   Both of these organizations have been working hard to raise the profile of community health centres in Manitoba and across Canada.  I am so proud to be able to work alongside my colleagues to advocate for important issues facing communities, including increased access to equitable health care and more focus on the broader social determinants of health.

This week I found myself steeped in these topics as MACH hosted its first Annual General Meeting (AGM), alongside CACHC, here in Winnipeg.   One of the reasons Winnipeg was chosen as the site for this year’s CACHC AGM is to help celebrate the 90th anniversary of the very first Community Health Centre in Canada- Winnipeg’s own Mount Carmel Clinic.  In addition to that momentous occasion, Winnipeg’s Women’s Health Clinic was celebrating its 35th anniversary, an organization that actually has some of its roots in Klinic Community Health.   I have no doubt that all the Community Health Centre’s that now make up MACH, in some way, owe a piece of their existence to the trail blazing beginnings of Mount Carmel.

CACHC AGM participants taking a tour of Canada's oldest CHC

CACHC AGM participants taking a tour of Canada’s oldest CHC

As I spent time with local and national colleagues over the last few days, we re-visited this conversation of what makes a community health centre. One of our AGM resolutions called for a revised definition, as we work to properly identify ourselves in an often complicated health delivery system.  You can access this passed resolution, along with another resolution supporting supervised injection sites, here.

At MACH we will now begin the work of looking at this new definition and see how we can reflect it in our own.  We know that as a small provincial organization, it is only through supporting and working together with other provincial associations and CACHC that we will successfully be able to speak with a larger, collective voice, and hopefully make a difference in how healthcare and health equity are talked about throughout Canada.

When I ponder on this idea of the qualities of a community health centre, I mostly can’t help thinking about the events and conversations I have had over the last 48 hours.  In Manitoba we celebrated the births of two very important community health leaders in our province, and when we look back at the history of those and other community health centres like Klinic (read more on Klinic’s colorful history in this previous guest blog), what is clear is that in all of these cases the community health centres arose and developed out of their communities.  In fact, this is also true of SERC (Sexuality Education Resource Centre), who may not be what is traditionally considered a community health centre, but nevertheless, has a history that dates back to the 1934 suffragist movement and community activism (SERC History).

The reality for me is that what makes a community health centre, is a community.  Generally, communities cannot be constructed, they are organic and undefinable in many ways; we may all be a part of many different communities: geographic, social, issue driven. We all have the right to decide what communities we want to be a part of, and once we do, to be involved in helping to shape them.

Some of the AGM participants had the opportunity to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Some of the AGM participants had the opportunity to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The week ends with the magnificent 35th anniversary spoken word and dance party for Women’s Health Clinic.  The room is full of familiar, friendly faces, many of whom make up our local community health centre families, a community in itself.  These centres are forever intertwined to the point that many of the people who work in these awesome places, work at more than one of them, sometimes several.   We are also joined by some of our colleagues from across Canada who stayed in town for the party (much to my delight, as it appears they love to dance!).

This event moves me in so many ways.  The feeling of being in a place where there are so many people whom I know and care about, and whom I believe are of one mind on some very important things: the very items at the core of community health.  Things like, how can we make the world more just? How can we support equality and equity to be a reality for everyone?

This room creates a feeling of safety and non-judgement in a way that only real community can.  Our DJ, Mama Cutsworth, is a genius, I mean, how do you move nonchalantly from Jolene by Dolly Parton to Oh Micky Your So Fine, in a matter of minutes? And why have we not been dancing to that forever?  It has been a long time since I danced this much and I am moved by the crowd, both physically and emotionally. There is a joy in this room that renews and reminds me; sometimes we just need the right music.

With thanks to all my colleagues at CACHC and MACH for a memorable week.  Here is to 90 more years of community health in Manitoba and Canada!

*Please check out this great retrospective of the AGM, put together by CACHC!  You can also see the full list of staff and board members here.