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Thursday January 24, 2013

Joyce Atcheson

Nurse, journalist, nomad. Born Aug. 7, 1947, in Port Arthur, Ont., died Nov. 22, 2012, in Dartmouth, from a blood clot, aged 65

Joyce Atcheson would never compromise her principles for a paycheque.

She was dedicated to the practice of health care. She earned her nursing diploma in Edmonton in 1968 and a master's degree in health science from McMaster University in 1988.

Her crisis of conscience occurred in 1991 when she launched a lawsuit against Alberta's College of Physicians and Surgeons for costing her a job at a family clinic by accusing her of practising medicine without a licence. Her duties included blood-pressure readings, pap smears and breast examinations.

"If I'm practising medicine without a licence in Fort McMurray," Joyce told reporters, "then (so are) nurses who are working in sexually transmitted-disease clinics, penal institutions, home care, hospitals and anywhere a doctor does not see the client or the patient before treatment is initiated."

She had begun to immerse herself in her Cree/Métis heritage, which helped her see another flaw in her chosen field: a double standard in health services provided to isolated native communities compared to that received by non-natives in southern Alberta.

Joyce lost her case, in which she received no support from her nurses' association. "The result gained me personal integrity but I gave up nursing," she wrote many years later. "My ethics and standards were far higher than the profession's."

From nurse to nomad, Joyce enrolled in 1997 in Canada's first native journalism diploma course, at First Nations Technical Institute on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory east of Belleville, Ont. I was an instructor, and heard for the first time what I always called her "laughing voice." Its melodious tone belied the woman of unwavering conviction and fierce independence I came to know.

Joyce embarked on a second career in which her primary goal was to help other people tell their stories. She worked in media relations for the National Aboriginal Health Organization in Ottawa, then landed a reporting job in Thunder Bay at Wawatay News. In 1999, she persuaded her editor to devote an entire issue of the bi-weekly to exposing double standards in health-care services provided to Ontario's remote first nations.

She said the spirits kept calling her east and she found herself unemployed and without a place to live in a small community near Halifax. Seeking first nations connections, she attended ceremonies conducted by David Gehue, a blind Mi'Kmaq spiritual leader. She assisted him in writing the autobiographical Voices of the Tent before his sudden death in 2011 and was paying her bills by writing book reviews for first nations newspapers and serving as a personal support worker for elderly clients in Dartmouth.

Although never married, Joyce was proud to say she was stepmother to four and grandmother to nine.

May her spirit be in a better place and shine in the night sky with all the other stars.

Maurice Switzer was Joyce's journalism teacher.

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