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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 1-5

Traditional chinese medicine in Canada: An indigenous perspective

Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada

Date of Web Publication18-Mar-2019

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Honoré France
Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria, Victoria
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_2_19

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This paper summarizes the practice of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Canada by exploring why so many indigenous people are drawn to it. We present a brief history of TCM in Canada, including its acceptance by 5 of the 10 provinces in Canada as one of the medical approaches, accepted and regulated by the government. Chinese philosophy embedded in TCM is compared to indigenous philosophy, and there is a description of some of the plants and animals used as remedies in indigenous folk medicine. In addition, there is a short description of how TCM psychology parallels some practices in indigenous psychology.

Keywords: Canada, indigenous philosophy, traditional Chinese medicine

How to cite this article:
France H, Rodriguez C. Traditional chinese medicine in Canada: An indigenous perspective. Chin Med Cult 2019;2:1-5

How to cite this URL:
France H, Rodriguez C. Traditional chinese medicine in Canada: An indigenous perspective. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 Jun 26];2:1-5. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2019/2/1/1/254379

“When I lived with the shamans, I found out that there is a difference between curing and healing.”

–Alberto Villoldo

  Introduction Top

We have always been fascinated by Villoldo's[1] ideas around curing and healing in which curing is described as remedial or fixing a problem, while healing is a means of transforming one's life. In other words, we can be cured of an illness, so it will not hinder us from pursuing our goals, but our life is not drastically changed. However, when we transform our thinking, feelings, and energy levels are different. We can see more clearly in every way, which is why holistic forms of helping have always appealed to us and have energized us to explore forms of helping beyond the Western paradigms that we have been trained in our professions of counseling psychology and education. Transformation involves all parts of the self, not just getting rid of a problem but also changing one's thoughts, feelings, actions, and motivation about how one lives in this world. Western medicine, like Western psychology, is not holistic and has a mind–body separation and thus it is only curing and not healing. In our experience, most Western approaches in my estimation fall into the category of curing (with a very few exceptions such as Transpersonal Psychology), in which one's whole being can be changed. In the spring of 2017, Honoré France had the opportunity to undertake a research project at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where he interviewed or attended lectures of major traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners, theorists, teachers, and writers. Not only was he required to read countless journals and books, but he also had the opportunity to engage his whole being in understanding what he was learning. What he found was that there were some parallels with what he had been taught by our indigenous teachers about healing and how one's life can be transformed. In his curiosity, he wondered how TCM would work with indigenous people in Canada. Consequently, we would like to explore in this paper the similarities between TCM philosophy and practice, and indigenous philosophy and practice. We will summarize TCM's success in Canada since 1985; examine the relationship of TCM, folk medicine, and counseling; explore folk medicine, indigenous counseling, and culture; look at the value of holistic well-being; and examine similarities of indigenous counseling and TCM.

While we were both teaching counseling psychology and indigenous education at the University of Victoria, respectively we were also working as facilitators in the indigenous community where we begin to learn more about one of our cultural heritages – indigenous healing, which includes an understanding of the relationship between healing and nature (land), how traditional healing was used before the introduction of Western Medicine, the use of herbs and foods as ways of healing the body, and how indigenous philosophy and spiritual practices could heal the mind and spirit. In a sense, healing is not just getting rid of a problem, but transforming one's life and changing the way one eats, exercises, and learns to live in harmony with all living things.

  Traditional Chinese Medicine in Canada Top

TCM is an integral part of Chinese culture and was introduced in North American when Chinese immigrants came to this continent. One of the oldest Chinese communities in Canada is in the city in which we live, work, and raise our children – Victoria, British Columbia. Hence, TCM was being practiced at the beginning of the Chinese immigrating to this territory, but it was only in 1985 that the first school of TCM opened its door to the general public in Canada in 1985. The first legislation of acupuncture was introduced in Alberta, Canada, in 1988, which quickly spread to other parts of the country. Currently, TCM and/or acupuncture have been regulated in five provinces in Canada and “…and the provinces of B.C. and Ontario regulate both TCM practitioners and acupuncturists (while) Alberta, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador regulate acupuncturists only”. One of the largest training programs in Canada is at the International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine located in Greater Vancouver (Surrey), which offers a 5-year program doctorate in TCM. Typically, programs also offered in many schools are 3-year diploma in acupuncture and herbalist and a 4-year program in TCM (practitioner). Currently, in Greater Vancouver, there are over 20 institutions that train TCM practitioners, including Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC.

  What Has Been the Rationale for This Phenomenal Growth of Traditional Chinese Medicine? Top

According to Janjua,[2] the interest in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which includes TCM, has gained a great deal of interest globally, in particular, in the province of British Columbia where it is officially recognized by the government and has had a growth in practitioners and clinics. For example, it is estimated that 70% of the Canadian population uses some form of CAM, compared to 48% in the USA and 31% in Belgium, while in a World Health Organization (WHO) report, “…the world market for CAM has been estimated at 60 billion USA in 2005 with a steady growth where TCM therapies have been found to be extensively used”.[2] In exploring a number of reasons for this phenomenon, we believe the growth is a result of the following reasons:

  1. Desire for more nature-based and holistic medical solutions
  2. Movement away from “big pharmacy” and the medical establishment
  3. High costs of Western medicine compared to nature-based practice
  4. Increased interests in CAM and folk medical practices (e.g., use of herbs and traditional indigenous practices).

  Folk Medicine: What Is It? Top

These days most countries regulate Complementary and Alternative Medicine(CAM) that offer patients an alternative form of medicine. However, there have been from the very beginning of time, different forms and types of medical practice. These practices are from around the world that pre-date modern medical practices and the establishment of modern hospitals; the WHO defines it as a traditional medicine as “the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness”.[3] They were based on the traditional ideas of healing and, in Canada, are widely practiced in the indigenous community.

It should be noted that medicines used in this tradition throughout history were taken not only from plants but also from animals and minerals. An excellent source of information about the use of animals by people from around the world including indigenous people is edited by Rômulo Nóbrega Alves and Ierecê Lucena Rosa (2013) -titled: Animals in Traditional Folk Medicine Implications for Conservation. Interestingly, Alves and Rosa[4] describe the early use of venom as a way of protecting early humankind from diseases and are still in use today. An example of a widely used of animals for medicines is cod liver oil: as a way of dealing with anemic, as a means of preventing parasites in the intestines, and as a way to prevent fever.

  The Indigenous People of Canada and Their Use of Traditional Medicines Top

Before the Europeans colonized and migrated to the Western hemisphere – over 500 years before – there were millions of indigenous people with advanced civilizations with their own art, technology, culture, languages, and literature just to name a few. Today, in Canada, they now only number about 6% of the total population with over 500 different groups of people with their own languages. The decline in numbers occurred after the first contact mainly from diseases that the Europeans brought with them along with the loss of their lands, way of life, and occupations. The government has classified these diverse peoples into three groups:First Nations(American Indians), Inuit (Eskimo), and those of mixed ancestors called Métis (mixture of indigenous people and Europeans). All have been influenced by the European migration, but most have been taking steps to preserve their culture, language, and teachings which have been passed down from generation to generation. To get an idea of how teachings about medicine and knowledge is passed down consider the following example of Coast Salish teacher – Sarah Modest.

Sarah Modeste, also known as “Tse-e-Ilat,” a well-known healing and knowledge keeper whose teachings, she describes as Snuw'uyulh {The psychology of Well-Being”}. Her teacher was her grandmother, and in time, Sarah will pass the teachings on to another person. This oral tradition of keeping knowledge alive is typical of folk medicine. In many conversations about Snuw'uyulk, we became acquainted with the main ideas about the nature of relationships, that healing needs to be holistic, that our actions need to be integrated with our inner selves, and that knowing/knowledge is subjective and in constant change. What makes the folk medicine of indigenous people significant is that they have been living in the land in North American from the very beginning of history, and thus, their knowledge based on observations over time provides all of the people living here now insight into traditional knowledge of plants, animals, and the natural world. These teachings give us a better understanding of how to utilize the gifts of medicine in the plants and animals that exist in this part of the world. Consider the words of the Yupiaq indigenous writer, Kawagley[5] who states that:

…where modern medicine failed and traditional medicine worked, and some elders say that is because the natural remedies integrate human expectations and spirituality along with using an herb.

  Examples of Folk Indigenous Medicine from Plants (The Cherokee, Dene, and Athabasca People) Top

Typically, information about the medicinal uses of animals, plants, and minerals from an indigenous perspective was not written down, although this has changed since the publication of Paul Hamel and Mary Chiltoskey's 1975 book: Cherokee Plants: Their Uses – A 400-year History. Before this book was published, the use of plants in medicine goes back even further with knowledge being passed down through apprenticeship. Banks,[6] quoting a 16th-century writer, on the Cherokee theory and practice of medicine affirms the importance of:

…the order of nature (because) every climate is blest with specific remedies for the maladies that are connatural to it…the Indians instigated by nature and quickened by experience have discover particular properties of vegetables as far as needful to their situation in life.

  • Ts'e (spruce gum) from the resin of the spruce tree was primarily used for cuts but can also be taken orally of stomach, diabetics, colds, and sinuses
  • Gots'ago (Labrador tea). For flu [Figure 1]
  • Dzendi (rat root or sweet flag). Used as an antibiotic and also for bone and muscle aches [Figure 2]
  • Ito detsam (mint or mentha). Used to help to sleep and for stomach aches [Figure 3]
  • Adirondack (red spruce). Treat infection and gangrene [Figure 4]
  • Fern used for sore throat and for food [Figure 5].
  • Salix (willow tree bark). The original aspirin [Figure 6].
Figure 1: Labrador tea

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Figure 2: Rat root or sweet flag

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Figure 3: Mint or menthe

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Figure 4: Red spruce

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Figure 5: Disambiguation

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Figure 6: Willow tree bark

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  Cultural, Philosophical, Sociological, and Psychological Similarities Top

I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one might flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.[7]

When Black Elk, a First Nations philosopher, spoke these words 70 years ago, he was expressing the most fundamental belief of all First Nations people of North America. The idea that all living things are related. The philosophical essence of this idea can be expressed in one word – respect; respect for the land, respect for the animals, respect for the plants, respect for other people, and finally, respect for the self. This is the essential ingredient for living life. The notion of respect is that humankind is not separate from any other thing in the world but just another living breathing creature among many. Thus, the environment, as a brother or sister, is not something to be exploited or harmed but is to be considered an integral part of everyone. The disease is caused when people are out of harmony with the land. First Nations people believe that humans have a choice of two roads: the “road” to technology (blue) or the “road” to spirituality (red).[8]

Indigenous beliefs emphasize that humankind is interdependent and that there has to be a balance not only in one's thoughts, feelings, and actions but also a manifested spiritual connection between the self and all creation. Since everything is interrelated, well-being is based on ensuring that one is in harmony with one's surroundings. In working with First Nations people, the tribal and the extended family are of utmost importance. Communication is often circular or nonlinear, which is different from European traditions. Spiritualism, as a way of knowing the world and as “good medicine,” provides guidance and protection through observation, teaching, and healing. It is important to note that the value placed on the “spirit” is not related to religion but another way of looking at the world that cannot be explained by science. Some important values and way of living that has some relationships with TCM are

  • Living life in balance and harmony (Yin-Yang and Earth-Sky)
  • Collectivist thinking and decision-making (consensus)
  • Relationship between ancestors, cosmic forces, and the natural world
  • Interconnectedness of mind, body, spirit, and emotions (integration of practice).

  A Brief Description of the Indigenous Therapeutic Approach Top

In conversations with Professor Lifang Qu,[9] we begin to understand the relationships and contributions of psychology to Chinese medical practices. At the same time, we also begin to see that TCM psychology and indigenous psychology had much in common. In one of her papers – “On the Psychological Significance of Heart Governing Shen Ming” – she says TCM is:[10]

…uniquely equipped to identify and treat body-mind illnesses because from the ancient times it perceived the interior of the living body as a cosmos, combining cognitive ingredients, social ideals, physical data and sensual self-awareness. The heart – “xin”-was seen as a physical organ as well as the abode of the spirit-mind – “shen”.

The way we practice indigenous psychology is holistic and nondual, which is totally different from Eurocentric psychological practice and more in line with TCM. The mind and the body, as well as the spirit, are all connected, so the approach can go in any direction and affect different parts of the self. In a sense, one might say that indigenous counseling is beyond the traditional constructs of traditional Western psychology's conception of personality and is more in line with TCM. The indigenous approach is a developmental process in which one goes beyond the self-limitation of the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual, to the point of self-realization of unlimited potentialities. Healing is the goal where one works at going beyond just getting rid of symptoms of maladjustment and pathology with approaching counseling with the following processes:[8]

  • Cognitive processes, for example, “how are you thinking about yourself vis-à-vis the problem and environment?”
  • Affective processes, for example, “how do you feel about the problem, people concerned, and your relationship to them?”
  • Action processes, for example, “how is your behavior blocking problem resolution in the group?”
  • Spiritual processes, for example, “how does your spiritual emptiness distance you from your connections with the cosmos and all living things?” The focus of the helping process is basically about empowerment of self through reconnecting to all that is good (e.g., nature).

Empowerment is the ability to take control over one's life, resolving issues related to negative life experiences, which means reinforcing positive self-esteem, improving coping skills, and strengthening family and community support networks, just to name a few. Indigenous traditions, practices, and ceremonies are utilized because these are basic elements of one's well-being. In addition, the practice one's culture acts as a way of guiding one's behavior in a direction that reinforces self-worth that anchor all of the people to family and community.

  Why is Traditional Chinese Medicine Attractive to Indigenous People? Top

TCM with its long history as a folk medicine has become quite popular in the indigenous community, not only because it is effective but also because of the philosophical and practical traditions that parallel the ancient Chinese traditions and practices to those of the indigenous people of Canada. According to Xu,[11] the following ideas and concepts are what makes TCM attractive to indigenous communities:

  • Cultural inclination to pay attention to natural food and natural medicines
  • Natural medicine, such as herbs from the land
  • Western medicine has not responded well toward many health issues in indigenous communities such as chronic diseases and extraordinary levels of stress and pain
  • Indigenous traditional medicine and TCM see a person having a connection between their mind and body and treat a whole person not just their symptoms.

  Conclusion Top

Plants and animals have always given humankind the opportunity to create an environment of well-being; consider the power of the sage plant – “traditional (Indigenous] stories and myths tell of the power of sage, saying wherever sage is present negative forces cannot enter”.[12] The psychological benefit of using plants in ceremonies is an important part of maintaining positive self-esteem as well as helping people who keep a positive attitude, which is why I always recommend to my counseling clients to use plants like sage as a way of creating positive energy. The medicinal use of plants and animals has a long history in folk medicine; however, it is only TCM that has achieved its place as the most widely recognized folk medicine, which has really gone mainstream with the long traditions of TCM and its recognition by governments around the world. Indigenous people of Canada naturally are drawn to TCM, especially since it has a proven record of research practices based on its long history of using natural remedies, established medical policies, and a long history of positive use not only in China but also on almost every country in the world. TCM philosophy resonates with people, especially indigenous people, who want to use medicines that are effective, healthy, and regulated with proven medical practices. We would like to end our discussion with a quote from indigenous ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer(2013) who reminds us of how relationships and connections are made with a natural pull and push, with tension, and with beauty: “Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair”.[13]

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Villoldo A. Shaman, Healer, Sage. New York; Harmony Books; 2000.  Back to cited text no. 1
Janjua QR. Marketing Strategy for a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Clinic in Vancouver, Unpublished MA thesis. Burnaby, BC: Simon Frasier University; 2006.  Back to cited text no. 2
World Health Organization. Traditional Medicine. World Health Organization; 2008. Available from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs134/en/index.html. [Last accessed on 2019Jan 31].  Back to cited text no. 3
Alves RN, Rosa IL. Animals in Traditional Folk Medicine Implications for Conservation. New York: Springer; 2013.  Back to cited text no. 4
Kawagley AO. A Yupiaq Worldview: A Pathway to Eology and Spirit. Long Grove, Ill, USA: Waveland Press; 1996.  Back to cited text no. 5
Banks WH. Plants of the Cherokee. Cherokee, NC, USA: Great Smoky Mountain Association; 2004.  Back to cited text no. 6
Black Elk Speaks. Black Elk: In conversations with Niehardt. Omaha, NB, USA: University of Nebraska Press; 1988.  Back to cited text no. 7
France MH, McCormick R, Rodriguez C. The red road: Spirituality, the medicine wheel and the sacred hoop. In: France H, Rodriguez C, Hett's G, editors. Diversity, Culture and Counseling: A Canadian Perspective. 2nd ed. Calgary, AB, Canada: 2013.  Back to cited text no. 8
Qu L. In Conversation at SUTCM. Shanghai, China; April – May, 2017.  Back to cited text no. 9
Qu L, Garvey M. On the psychological significance of heart governing Shen Ming. Aust J Acupunct Chin Med 2009;4:14-22.  Back to cited text no. 10
Xu X. Indigenous Groups in B.C. Welcome Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinics. Globe and Mail. Toronto, Canada; 2018.  Back to cited text no. 11
Savinelli A. Plants of Power: Native American Ceremony and the Use of Sacred Plants. Summerville, TN, USA: 2002.  Back to cited text no. 12
Kimmerer R. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, Min, USA: Milkweed Editions; 2013.  Back to cited text no. 13


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6]


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