Aboriginal health research: past, present, future

Panel discussion on community research

- December 5, 2014

Panelists Debbie Martin, Amy Bombay and Fred Wien. (Mary Bateman photo)
Panelists Debbie Martin, Amy Bombay and Fred Wien. (Mary Bateman photo)

Three people sit at a table. They are of different ages, come from different backgrounds, and are at different stages in their careers. It is this scope of diversity and experience that helped explore 25 years of Aboriginal health research last Thursday evening.

“Looking Back, Moving Forward: Aboriginal Health Research in Canada” was a public panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Health Promotion Research Centre with Dalhousie professor and the centre’s scientific director, Lois Jackson, acting as presenter. The panel was moderated Diana Lewis-Campbell of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians Tribal Council and a PhD doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology. They rallied together a conversation in which the three panelists had 8-10 minutes to present their experiences on a changing climate of Aboriginal health research.

Fred Wien, professor emeritus of the School of Social Work and the nominated principal investigator for the Atlantic Health Research Program, discussed the reluctance on the part of Mi’kmaq communities towards interacting with researchers in the 1970s, when he began collecting data of employment patterns on reserves with permissions from chiefs and councils.

Dr. Wien described a surprised reception from the people he reached out to, as in general, “any research they had experienced [previously] was research done to them, not with them,” adding that the Mi'kmaq communities were cautious that the results of the study would be used against them. At the time, he says, there was, “no conception that [researchers] would use the research to advance their interests.”

This initial reluctance further spawned awareness to the necessity of employing specialized standards in the applications of Aboriginal health research. In later years, concerned that First Nation people living on reserves were routinely excluded by Statistics Canada during national surveys of Canadian health, a national steering committee working under the Assembly of First Nations convinced Health Canada to provide funding to conduct the very first First Nations and Inuit Longitudinal Regional Health Survey in 1997. Currently conducted in Nova Scotia by the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, the survey tailors its questions to each region and effectively fosters community capacity building and self-determination.

Building capacity

“Nothing about us, without us,” said Debbie Martin, assistant professor at the School of Health and Human Performance and research associate at the Atlantic Health Promotion Research Centre at Dalhousie. That oft-used term describes the standard by which Aboriginal health research is now conducted, with Dr. Martin asserting that the formation of the Network Environments for Aboriginal Health Research [NEAHR] was “instrumental in building capacity to build research within aboriginal communities, and to do it in ways that respected the community.”

NEAHR has nine centres across Canada that support research environments as well as facilitating the development of Aboriginal capacity-building in health research. The variety of quantitative and qualitative research available provided Amy Bombay, assistant professor at the Department of Psychiatry and School of Nursing at Dalhousie, a valuable platform on which to communicate her research.

“[Particularly] the research that started to be made available through the Regional Health Survey is important for providing empirical evidence for the social, cultural and historical determinates of Indigenous health,” explained Dr. Bombay, asserting that the use of statistics is invaluable to advocacy, policy changes and to give cause for increased funding in various programs.

Dr. Bombay focuses much of her research on how residential schools and other historical events have contributed to intergenerational cycles of stress and adversity, particularly in childhood. Dr. Bombay shared a few graphs in a particularly moving demonstration of the comparative psychological stress impacting individuals with and without family history within the residential school system.

“Showing graphs like this one has been particularly effective in shutting down what is termed 'laissez-faire racism,' which is the tendency to blame Aboriginal peoples for their social inequities and resist policies that address these issues,” she explained.

Addressing shortfalls

She cited a survey on opinions of non-Indigenous Canadians done in the wake of major developments like the 2008 residential school apology from the federal government as well as the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It found community support from non-Indigenous peoples is decreasing as many feel no further action is needed.

“We can't assume that the effects of the historical traumas are behind us,” she said. “This decreasing interest in issues relating to aboriginal well-being... really seems to mirror the government's views on these issues,” bringing up this year's significant budget cuts to many national Aboriginal centres.

Dr. Wien said these budgeting changes could have noted effects on research into Aboriginal topics.

“The field of Aboriginal health was just starting from almost zero in 2000. It’s not like… other fields where there are decades of experience and well-trained faculty and staff.”

“We know that the persistence of health and social inequalities are still there,” said Dr. Martin. “And so until we see that there’s a difference, I think we should continue to build capacity.”


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