Aurum Award winner Athanasius Sylliboy improves health outcomes for Mi’kmaq
By Allison Barss
Whether it’s enjoying the first cup of coffee, preparing for the day ahead or during the one-hour commute to work, Athanasius “Tanas” Sylliboy (MN’20) looks for any opportunity to reflect.
“It’s important for me to ground myself in gratitude,” says the Aurum Award recipient. “It helps me realize how fortunate I am to be where I am now.”
Sylliboy was raised in Eskasoni First Nation, the largest Mi’kmaq community in the world, nestled alongside Bras d’Or Lake in eastern Cape Breton Island. “Growing up, it was easy to feel like I didn’t belong in certain spaces,” they say. “It was challenging to overcome my own barriers.”
Their mother, along with Sylliboy’s close circle of family members and friends, became a guiding light on their journey to self discovery as a Two Spirit, Mi’kmaw nurse practitioner.
“My mother has always been my biggest inspiration and supporter,” they say. “She is quick to discourage any negative thoughts, instead encouraging me to be my authentic self and to never be afraid to share that with the world.”
Sylliboy attended Cape Breton University (CBU) where they earned a nursing degree in 2015. They and a friend were the first two Mi’kmaw men to graduate from CBU’s nursing program. “I knew then, as much as I do now, that I had a job to do to help others like me.”
From there, Sylliboy continued their studies at Dalhousie’s School of Nursing, earning a master’s degree in 2020.
Creating safe spaces
Today, Sylliboy is primarily stationed at the Millbrook Health Centre in Millbrook First Nation near Truro, a facility committed to offering accessible, culturally safe, and holistic care to Millbrook and their community members. On a casual basis, they also work at the IWK’s Emergency Department in Halifax.
Early in Sylliboy’s career, they quickly recognized the significance of having Mi’kmaq-speaking health-care staff across various settings. “It not only brings comfort and reassurance to Mi’kmaw patients and their families, but also fosters an environment where they can feel safe.”
Sylliboy says to date, they are among only a few known Mi’kmaq-speaking health-care providers in Nova Scotia. “I deeply value using our language in my daily work,” they say.
They also share that they have seen many people from their communities who have exhausted all options before considering coming to the emergency room, or even avoiding it entirely, due to concerns of facing racism. “I strive to deliver the appropriate care and raise awareness so that Mi’kmaq patients can feel secure and acknowledged, so they will make the emergency room their first option.”
Sylliboy adds that they want this awareness — this feeling of safety — to not just be felt in today’s generation, but for the next seven generations and beyond.
“Making health care accessible is so important,” says Sylliboy. “Obtaining health care is already challenging, but it’s even more difficult for marginalized communities. My goal is to create or transform spaces to be more inclusive and safer for everyone, particularly those who have previously felt unseen, and unheard.”
Let us help one another, together
“In my language, there’s an expression that goes ‘Mawi-Apoqnmatultinej’,” shares Sylliboy. “It means, ‘let us help one another, together.’” Whenever Sylliboy works with another person — whether a fellow nurse, a community member or an advocate — this has remained their grounding principle.
“My views are equally as important as anyone else’s, so let’s combine our strengths to benefit others and to find a solution. We need to meet in the middle.”
In addition to their work as a nurse practitioner, Sylliboy has been volunteering their time in other capacities to increase Indigenous representation, including speaking engagements like podcasts or webinars, or transforming queer spaces by performing as drag queen, Anita LandBack.
Sylliboy has also engaged in various advisory and collaborative roles, including pediatric pain research with the Aboriginal Children’s Hurt and Healing (ACHH) Initiative at the IWK. Additionally, they have collaborated with Dalhousie University and CBU to promote anti-racism education and improved care for Indigenous patients. Most recently, their volunteer efforts have included raising awareness about HIV prevention in their communities.
“I don’t really view it as work or volunteering,” says Sylliboy. “It’s my responsibility to contribute where I can.”
They add that they know they need to continue to be vocal to make change. “I have a responsibility to help transform spaces where our people, and other racialized communities can be more visible, and to bring opportunities for people to learn and to see themselves in those spaces,” they say.
“I want to share my culture, its language, its beauty, its stories — and to help rebuild trust. I’m just getting started.”