CUP Graduate Student Equity Award Profile: Audrey Medwayosh

30 January 2023

I want people to be aware of the challenges of trying to conduct your work ‘in a good way’—in the Indigenous sense of a ‘good way’—while also learning to do research in a manner that is upheld by the institution. That’s what I’m trying to balance and learn right now.”

This article is part of a series highlighting the recipients of the Graduate Student Equity Award offered by the Community-University Partnership (CUP) in the School of Public Health. The award supports graduate students pursuing community-engaged research and is made possible with funding from the Suncor Energy Foundation.

Audrey is a member of the Wasauksing Nation, which is located in the area now known as Ontario, but she lived most of her life in British Columbia. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2011, Audrey spent seven years working as a pastry chef and kitchen manager before returning to complete a bachelor’s in anthropology. She began a master's program in sociology at the University of Alberta in 2022.

Her primary research focus is Indigenous experiences of death and dying. She says her interest in this subject arose while she was volunteering for the Vancouver Hospice Society and noticed the facility served hardly any Indigenous patients. This fact led her to the realization that there are almost no Indigenous hospices or care centres in Canada.

“When I started looking into it, I realized that there aren’t a lot of Indigenous people dying of old age and natural causes because dying of old age is a privilege. We have far more people who are dying from markers of poor health and at younger ages—and from homicide, suicide, and violence.

“I am very familiar with the impacts of intergenerational trauma. The fact is that we lose family members in really horrific ways and ways that I would consider preventable. There is no reason why Indigenous people should be living under these conditions in a country like Canada.

“It’s important to remember that a lot of us live in urban settings like Edmonton, which means we are far away from our cultural support networks. Culture is incredibly meaningful and relevant when it comes to the healing and grieving process. These are the things I want to delve into further.”

For the time being, Audrey is completing her coursework and strategizing about the larger thesis project she will complete over the coming years, which she hopes will help identify how to make culturally relevant resources available to more Indigenous people, particularly in urban settings.

She is interested in following a research-creation approach as a way to combine her academic interest in decolonization with her creative life. In addition to being a student, Audrey runs Waawaate Beads, which has the mission of providing more Indigenous people access to beads.

“I do a lot of gifting through my platform because I really think it is our ancestral right to have these beads. Also, people who are not Indigenous will sometimes donate in order to sponsor beaded jewelry for Indigenous people. Unfortunately, cost is an impediment to so many people. However, there’s a lot of ancestral knowledge that exists within beading.”

In preparation for her thesis, Audrey took the opportunity to incorporate community engagement into a class assignment intended to teach students how to conduct qualitative research. Her project focused on collecting the first-hand experiences of overdose prevention workers in downtown Edmonton. To carry out the research, Audrey relied on her connections as an occasional volunteer for the Bear Clan Patrol, a grassroots outreach group with a chapter in Edmonton.

“I’ve been volunteering for the past year, and I saw firsthand, you know, overdoses. And I responded to them as well. But I’ve also seen the streetworks teams, the social workers, the nurses, and all the different people who are on the ground fighting the opioid crisis.

“I wanted to take a look at a section of the community that had not been studied too much, while at the same time avoiding studying an already over-studied group like people who use opioids, who would receive no benefit from the work I was doing.”

While the project was small and limited by it being a class assignment, Audrey said she was able to create value out of her work by sharing her findings with the organizations that connected her to the interviewees. She took this step in hopes that the organizations could better understand burnout from the perspective of their workers and identify changes to improve the situation.

As a recipient of the Graduate Student Equity Award, Audrey is also taking part in CUP’s community of practice sessions to meet and share ideas with other students pursuing community-engaged research. She says the experience has provided her some excellent outside perspectives.

“I think I’ve always done a lot of community-based work, but I didn’t necessarily give it a name or structure. I’ve always volunteered. I’ve always been in and around Indigenous communities as well. So it just makes sense to me to be working in this area.

“I also think that, if you are Indigenous, and you do manage to make it somewhere like academia, then it means you have the privilege of using your voice in spaces that a lot of Indigenous people might not be able to. So it’s important that you do the best you can to represent your community while you’re in this space.”

Anyone wishing to support Waawaate Beads can contact Audrey through her website.