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Award-Winning Research Team Focused On Urban Indigenous Health Issues

Members of the Sokolomolsuwaken: Atlantic Urban Indigenous Health Research Network. Image: submitted.

Neil Forbes, a member of the urban Indigenous community on Prince Edward Island, says community-driven research is more effective when it integrates Indigenous cultural teachings.

The education director for Lennox Island First Nation, Forbes says First Nations communities have long had to rely too heavily on federal funding for research. But for a true partnership to happen, that needs to change.

“We’re practical and we know that we need to work on this together. We just want the opportunity to have it come from our perspective, our ways, our values,” he said.

Forbes is part of an Atlantic Canada-wide network coordinated from Fredericton that is shifting the way health research is done with Indigenous communities. The New Brunswick Health Research Foundation has named Sokolomolsuwaken: Atlantic Urban Indigenous Health Research Network the research team of the month for May.

Focusing on the urban indigenous population of the region, community leaders, academia and government staff are teaming up to conduct research that relies on Indigenous teachings and for which the control and access of data and funding will be placed in the hands of Indigenous communities.

Project Lead Jason Hickey, an assistant professor at UNB Fredericton’s nursing department, said having the various voices at the table will ensure the research remains focused on the community, is scientifically sound and has a chance to inform policy.

He said the approach also marks a shift in the balance of power, promoting more self-determination for Indigenous populations. This is in line with the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“With Indigenous research – health research at least – there’s a long history of academics trying to go into communities and taking information and knowledge and then not really giving anything back to the community. So there’s a strong push ethically to change the way that kind of research is done,” Hickey explains.

He says Indigenous communities know best what they need and just need to be supported in their work.

“The research we will be promoting and doing will be owned by the communities so they’ll have control of the data, they’ll control who will be able to access it and what people will be able to do with it,” he said. “In that kind of a relationship, the academic is a lot more of a support person than the lead in the research, which is unusual for a research partnership in my experience.”

This network will focus more on strengths and resources already available in each community instead of coming up with one-size-fits-all strategies for specific physical and mental health issues. This way, projects could also include things like language revitalization.

“A lot of people think of illnesses when they talk about health. But for Indigenous people, health needs to be viewed more holistically. So the cultural and social determinants — the upstream factors that affect people’s health and well-being — will be what we focus on more so than illnesses themselves,” Hickey said.

The research process will respect Indigenous traditions on communication and collaboration. For instance, the Wellness Wheel teaches love, respect, honesty and trust.

“Everything you do, every question you want to ask needs to come from a place of respect, honestly, trust and love. And if you start making judgments on people and communities then you automatically lost respect for yourself,” Forbes said.

“That’s a really good way to approach research. That’s a really good way for governments to work as service providers and we don’t really have that. So as First Nations, we want to have partnerships that show how to help First Nations by having respect and coming from a non-judgmental place.”

A Cree from Saddle Creek, Alberta, who has lived in PEI his whole life, Forbes said getting involved with the urban aboriginal community has also helped him cope when he struggled with his sense of culture, language and identity.

“Just even that label [of urban aboriginal] has helped me feel more comfortable with who I am as a native man in Canada,” he said.

This story was sponsored by the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation.

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