On the forefront of aboriginal health research

Exploring specific health needs of aboriginal communities

- October 5, 2011

Debbie Martin (left) and Heather Castleden, co-princial investigators with the AAHRP. (Danny Abriel photo)
Debbie Martin (left) and Heather Castleden, co-princial investigators with the AAHRP. (Danny Abriel photo)

Dalhousie professors Debbie Martin and Heather Castleden are working towards better understanding the health issues of Canada's Aboriginal Peoples.

The Canadian Institute of Health Research Institute of Aboriginal People’s Health (CIHR-IAPH) is a virtual institute that supports research initiatives and community-based projects that address the specific health care needs of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Its initiatives include the Network Environments for Aboriginal Health Research (NEAHR), with nine centres across the country.

One of those centres is the Atlantic Aboriginal Health Research Program (AAHRP), based at Dalhousie and Millbrook First Nation in Truro. The program recently received $970,000 in funding for the period of October 2010 to September 2012 from the IAPH.

This money will go toward supporting undergraduate and graduate students pursuing a career in aboriginal health research through fellowships and undergraduate internships, and also to small research grants to aboriginal communities and workshops on aboriginal health throughout the region.

Two-Eyed Seeing Approach

Heather Castleden, assistant professor in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies, is one of the co-principal investigators for AAHRP. Since coming to Dalhousie two years ago, she’s been working first hand with Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia to engage in research concerning the environmental health issues in their communities.

“Research that applies both indigenous and western methods has not fully launched in Canada, though the potential is there,” she says.

This is especially so with respect to environmental health issues involving Aboriginal Peoples, she explains, in light of the fact that environmental health injustices in aboriginal territories are abundant.

“There are multiple instances where industry and toxic waste facilities are, often intentionally, located near First Nations communities. It’s pretty safe to say these sites are causing long-term environmental health impacts. Just look at the impacts of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows over 25 years ago – the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual impacts are still being felt today.”

Part of Dr. Castleden’s role is working collaboratively with Mi’kmaq and other First Nations across Canada to address these issues from an environmental (health) and social justice framework through human health risk assessments.

“To conduct this kind of research, we will use a ‘Two-Eyed Seeing Approach,’ which is a Mi’kmaq approach,attributed to the teachings of Mi’kmaq Elders Albert and Murdena Marshall and their colleague, Dr. Cheryl Bartlett, where we use one eye to see from an Indigenous perspective and the other from a western perspective,” explains Dr. Castleden. “We use this approach when discussing health issues in the broadest sense - to include physical, spiritual, mental, and social dimensions.”

Holistic approach to oral health

Debbie Martin, an assistant professor in the School of Health and Human Performance, is also one of the co-principal investigators of the AAHRP. A cornerstone of Dr. Martin’s work is the need for research priorities to be identified by communities, not researchers.

In 2008, a workshop was held among researchers, policy-makers and community members in Labrador. One of the research priorities identified was the need to address poor oral health issues among aboriginal children.

Working with a team of researchers from Dalhousie’s Faculty of Dentistry, Dr. Martin has recently been awarded funding by CIHR through an Open Operating Grant competition to conduct a three-year community-based research study that will collect baseline oral health data for children (something that has not been done before in Labrador) and also introduce two oral health interventions into the community – one that focuses on oral health promotion and the other on oral health service delivery.

The intent of the project, entitled, ‘Kungatsiajuk: Supporting the healthy smiles of NunatuKavut children,’ is to recognize that oral health goes beyond the dental chair to include things like accessibility and affordability of healthy and culturally appropriate foods.

“We’ve proposed a health promotion program that would allow us to go in and talk to kids in NunatuKavut about activities that impact their oral health,” she says. “We’re also going to be working with community members to create a series of policy recommendations so that kids have better access to activities needed to improve their oral health.”

Breaking down barriers

Researchers say that when comparing the health of the aboriginal population versus the non-aboriginal populations, the health outcomes are staggeringly different.

“The root causes of this difference are historical inaccess to health care, colonial policies and racism in the system,” explains Dr. Martin. “That being said, I’m optimistic about the future of aboriginal health. I’d like to think things are quickly changing. The nature of the kinds of research being done is very innovative. It really engages the community. Instead of doing research for them, we’re doing it with them.”

Dr. Martin and Dr. Castleden are hoping the research they are doing in collaboration with community partners will ultimately change and shape the policies that affect the health and wellness of Aboriginal Peoples. The research they do also includes a capacity building component.

“The mandate of our work is to fund community-driven research,” Dr. Martin explains. “A lot of aboriginal communities will tell us that they already know the health inequalities and they already know the rates of disease. They feel over-researched. Instead of just asking questions, we’re listening to the community as to what their research needs are.”

“At the end of the day, it comes down to relationship building,” says Dr. Castleden. “Sharing stories and understanding where we all come from and then figuring out how we can live, work and co-exist together is all part of the awareness initiative we’re trying to create.” 


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