Mentorship and training to strengthen Indigenous research capacity

"At the end, I see this work as something that is important to our future. We can only be successful by working together," explains Francois Paulette.

Donna Richardson - 03 September 2019

A workshop in Yellowknife hosted by the School of Public Health has resulted in a vision for mentoring and training public health graduate students in Indigenous health research.

Led by School faculty members Stephanie Montesanti and Susan Chatwood, the aim of the workshop co-hosted by the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research, was to explore ways to strengthen Indigenous research capacity through mentorship and training.

"This is about supporting Indigenous research talent by offering learning opportunities and creating the right infrastructure," explains Montesanti, assistant professor and co-chair of the School's Truth and Reconciliation Commission Working Group. "Supporting Indigenous students starts with increasing the number of scholarships available to them, and it also involves mentorship in order to help them navigate academia."

"We wanted to consider what the principles of community engaged research should be," says Montesanti. "We also wanted to discover what 'mentorship' means in community engaged environments when we work with Indigenous and northern partners."

Faculty, staff and students of the School travelled to Yellowknife for the workshop. In addition, Indigenous elders and adjuncts of the School participated in the discussions, along with members of Indigenous northern communities in the Northwest Territories.

"Research is helping us understand why our people are sick, and why there are changes to our lifestyles," says adjunct professor Francois Paulette, who participated in the workshop. "There are a lot of issues related to the health of our people and the health of the environment. We need to create balance with a holistic approach by bringing our elders, women and youth together with students and researchers."

Vision for community engaged mentorship and training

Participants identified several key elements of a vision for successful community engaged mentorship and training for students and Indigenous mentors. Key elements of the vision, depicted in this graphic, include:

  • creating pathways to health equity for Indigenous peoples and communities in Northwest Territories and Alberta;
  • working in the spirit intended in treaties with Canada's Indigenous people;
  • creating opportunities to learn through experience (e.g. land based learning);
  • integrating Indigenous knowledge in course teaching;
  • fostering an environment in which people feel comfortable in opening up and learning from one another;
  • building hope, mutual respect and lasting relationships for research; and
  • creating a balance between western world views and Indigenous knowledge systems without compromising either.

Rassi Nashalik is an Inuit elder who is part of the School's Elders and Knowledge Keepers Program. "Being an elder is so important because as elders we speak from the heart. I was brought up in traditional ways, watching my family and what they were doing in my community."

One aspect of the vision for engaged mentorship and training is using traditional knowledge. Nashalik says, "It is so important for public health students to learn. They need to learn what they will be dealing with and how to be involved in the community."

The long view is to promote a health system that acknowledges traditional knowledge, builds capacity and is empowering. "At the end, I see this work as something that is important to our future. We can only be successful by working together," explains Paulette.

Principles will guide research and training

Focused on their desire to work together in mutually beneficial ways, workshop participants identified several principles to guide the School's community engaged research and training:

  • being present
  • being responsive to community needs
  • being connected to communities
  • changing our mindset - "out of heads, and into our hearts"
  • giving time and space to listen to stories
  • understanding the history, culture and context
(See a graphic representation of the guiding principles.)

"Our people are looking for reconciliation," says Paulette. "My responsibility is to build a relationship based on the principles of trust, caring, acceptance and honesty."

Indigenous reconciliation initiatives in the School

The School of Public Health is known for its commitment to engaged scholarship-working with communities on research that addresses real-world public health issues. Building on this commitment, the School is working to renew relationships with Indigenous peoples.

The workshop was part of the School's Indigenous and northern health strategy, a three-pronged approach to strengthen the contributions of Indigenous knowledge to research and training and to respond to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

  1. Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Working Group - The working group, led by co-chairs Jeff Johnson, professor and associate dean (education), and Montesanti, is developing action plans on eight recommendations made in the Calls to Action.
  2. Elders and Knowledge Keepers program - Appointing Indigenous elders, knowledge keepers and adjuncts means greater opportunities to include traditional knowledge and values into graduate program curriculum. Students, faculty and staff also benefit from interacting with elders and knowledge keepers.
  3. Northern and Indigenous health strategy - Indigenous elders and adjuncts serve as co-investigators on projects, educators and advisors. This enriches learning and helps students include traditional knowledge in research, develop respectful relationships and better understand northern and Indigenous communities.

Truth and reconciliation

Reagan Bartel (MPH '19) received invaluable mentorship from the elders during her time as a student with the School. "Interacting with elders provided me with an opportunity to dive deeper into the meaning of trust. Often, we skip over the 'truth' part of the TRC and rush right to the 'reconciliation,'" she explains.

"Speaking with our elders gave me, as a student, a place to learn about Canada's past. The elders have stressed the importance of understanding that truth is linked to developing trust."

Reflecting on his role as in mentoring students in the School, Paulette says, "One thing I like is these young people are eager to learn. They are asking questions-good, hard questions."

"In providing mentorship, I am learning as much from them as they are learning from me."

Funding and support

This workshop was funded by an Indigenous Reconciliation and Research Capacity grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, Network Environments for Indigenous Health Research planning grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and a McCalla Professorship held by Susan Chatwood. Kimberley Fairman, executive director of the Institute of Circumpolar Health Research, provided leadership support.