Research as reconciliation

Indigenous people should be owners of their research, Dr. Carrie Bourassa says. That’s how Morning Star Lodge was born

Submitted photo Dr. Carrie Bourassa is a Métis researcher.

“I often wonder how my path came here,” says Dr. Carrie Bourassa, Scientific Director of CIHR’s Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health and Lab Mentor with Morning Star Lodge. “How did I get here; I never had a plan. And for me to even think about being a mother or a wife, or graduating high school, going to university, that was just never on my mind. I mean, what was on my mind was survival.”

Dr. Carrie Bourassa says this as she gives a TEdx talk about research as a form of reconciliation. Born to two teenage parents, with a history of poverty and an education level no higher than grade 8, Dr. Bourassa, a Saskatchewan Métis women, says she grew up around addiction and generational trauma, but her grandfather had big hopes for her, often telling her that she was going to be a doctor or a lawyer and having her repeat those words to herself as a child.

Dr. Bourassa broke a cycle through education. Not only was she the first person in her family to graduate high school, she was the first person in her family to go to university where she obtained a master’s degree in political science and a PHD in in social studies.

Dr. Bourassa leads the advancement of a national health research agenda to improve and promote the health of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people.

“Research has become an incredible positive force in my life,” said Dr. Bourassa. “And that’s kind of interesting because, historically, research has not been good for Indigenous communities… There’s researchers that have really good intentions, they go into communities and they have these research proposals and they think they’re doing good and they cause more harm. They cause more harm because it’s not community based and it’s not community driven and then it becomes unethical. And you also look at the government and the government has reams and reams of data that is First Nations, Métis, or Inuit. Data that should be held and owned and the ownership should be theirs [First Nations] and it is not and that’s unethical.”

The Institute of Indigenous People’s Health (IIPH) encourages Indigenous students to take up health research so that they can bring Indigenous Perspectives and work with Indigenous communities to improve the overall health and wellbeing of First Nations.

A current study that is community driven is a study into why First Nation communities have seen a drastic spike in dementia in the last ten years. Not only is this study community driven, with youth working with elders, but there are several Indigenous people conducting the studies and who are employed through these initiatives, which can be seen as inspiration to younger generations.

Dr. Bourassa lists just a few statistics from Health Statistics of Indigenous Peoples Canada, which include suicide rates among Indigenous youth five to seven times higher than the national average and violence against Indigenous women is three times higher than other Canadian women with over 1200 Indigenous women still missing.

“We go into Indigenous communities and ask about the problem,” says Dr. Bourassa. “But what do we not do? We don’t ask about the solutions. We don’t take an asset-based approach, we don’t look at the strengths and resilience and the living experiences that they have. Why not? We can and we should do it.”

That’s how Dr. Bourassa leads her research initiatives. Community involvement is very important to Dr. Bourassa, she emphasizes it not only when she speaks, but when she works as well, and the results can be transformative.

Because some researchers didn’t feel comfortable in an academic setting, and were looking for a safe space, they asked Dr. Bourassa if she could find them a place where they could work and also train new scholars. The Morning Star Lodge was born. The Morning Star Lodge is currently undergoing a study about dementia and Indigenous communities and has published a report on water economics, policies, and governance.

“Morning Star Lodge is very unique, it’s a mentorship lab.” Said Dr. Bourassa. “It’s one of a kind. It’s led by elders, it’s led by community partners. And the community partners that we have, we take direction from them, always. So, we have undergraduate students, we have graduate students, we have postdocs, we have community members. We have some community members that might have a grade 8, but they have a lot to contribute. Just as much as a postdoc or a graduate student.”

The Morning Star Lodge serves the community, takes direction from them, and are guided by ceremony and prayer from their elders, they don’t do anything without starting in ceremony.

“We also have a variety of training activities, and we call this training.” Said Dr. Bourassa. “As much as you might get training in software or Envivo and SPSS, but this kind of training is different; land-based learning, Indigenous body mapping, making tobacco ties and ribbon skirts, going to full moon ceremonies and feasts and sweats and going picking medicines on the land and attending all kinds of different ceremonies… and elders are actively involved in guiding every research project and they play a critical role in the lab, they are always available to student trainees, community members, researchers, but we have the privilege of getting direction from community partners and they help us build new Indigenous research methodologies.”

This is important because it’s a fundamental act of self-determination. The Morning Star Lodge prioritizes Indigenous Knowledge and languages and develops new research methodologies, which creates a decolonizing space. It’s the safe space that researchers had hoped for.

The Morning Star Lodge celebrates and recognizes Indigenous knowledge, which isn’t to say that they don’t use mainstream methodologies, but they prioritize the Indigenous methodologies.

“If you wanna talk about reconciliation, which we are talking about, then it’s all about self determination.” Said Dr. Bourassa. “Indigenous communities must be leading the Indigenous research agenda in Canada. Full. Stop. And that is my job, to create that ethical space to ensure that happens. And so, I’ve been creating opportunities and reducing barriers. And that’s really just the long and the short of it is, how can I serve Indigenous communities in Canada to ensure they have the opportunities to apply for and be successful in health research.”

The Institute of Indigenous People’s Health and the Morning Star Lodge both have several studies taking place in Indigenous communities, where community is the priority.