Across Canada, the way that research is taking place in Indigenous communities is changing significantly, driven by Indigenous-led and regulatory influences. In many ways, researchers are still adapting to these changes.
Navigating this evolving landscape is even more complex in Indigenous mental health research because of the enduring impacts of historical and intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples individually and at the community level.
As partners on a growing number of projects, CAMH researchers and Indigenous communities are building strong collaborative relationships, rooted in community leadership in planning and implementing the research – approaches that they hope will spread in conducting research to enhance mental wellness in Indigenous communities.
“Over the past decade, Indigenous communities across the country have been really mobilizing to build community-based approaches to conducting research,” says Julie Bull, a member of NunatuKavut in Labrador, and Research Methods Specialist in Aboriginal Engagement and Outreach in CAMH’s Provincial System Support Program. Many First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities have research processes in place, and at least 120 communities have developed rigorous structures to review and approve research proposals.
This momentum builds on First Nations-developed research principles introduced in 1998. The First Nations Information Governance Centre’s principles of ownership, control, access and possession (OCAP®) outline that First Nations communities own and control all aspects related to information collected in their communities.
Regulatory changes also play a role. As of 2010, the federal policy governing research includes a section about research involving First Nations, Inuit and Métis. A key requirement of the policy is that researchers must engage with and obtain approval from Indigenous communities to conduct research before any research begins.
All of these changes are ushering in highly collaborative models for conducting Indigenous research.
Still, the federal policy “gives you what to do, but not how to do it,” says Bull, whose work focuses on Indigenous research ethics and governance. She adds that the following five Rs can serve as guiding principles: respect, responsibility, reciprocity, relevance and relationships. “Relationships are really the most important piece – if you build the relationship authentically, you will inherently incorporate all five principles,” says Bull.
“Absolutely, at the core is meaningful and respectful engagement with the community,” says Dr. Samantha Wells, Senior Scientist in CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research. “To ensure the research is beneficial, community members need to be involved right at the outset and have a voice at every step.” This includes sharing and interpreting the study findings through the appropriate lens to help ensure that the findings are grounded in the community context.
“Each community has its own context, and there can be great variability across communities,” says Dr. Renee Linklater, a member of Rainy River First Nations and Director of Aboriginal Engagement and Outreach at CAMH.
In Indigenous research, “reciprocity becomes an imperative – what benefits will the community be able to garner from participating in a project?” says Dr. Linklater. One approach is intervention research, in which, as part of the research process, evidence-informed interventions are built into the project to address community needs.
“Research should always result in an action to do, especially in First Nations communities, given the history of colonialism and intergenerational trauma – this amounts to better research and better outcomes for communities,” says Dr. Julie George, a member of Kettle & Stony Point First Nation and Scientist in CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research. She is also the Mental Health, Addiction and Violence Support Program Manager in Kettle & Stony Point’s Health Services Department.
Dr. George, who has been conducting research in her home community for more than five years, adds, “lots of delicate issues may arise during a project, and frank discussions are needed.”
For both researchers and Indigenous communities, working in highly collaborative models “can be challenging, and there will be difficulties,” says Bull. “It takes more time, and there can be challenges of geography and managing priorities. Those challenges should not be seen as a deterrent, but rather as an opportunity to invest in meaningful partnerships that may offer reciprocal benefits.”
For Indigenous communities, such collaborations lead to locally relevant data, and can provide the evidence needed to support initiatives to improve and expand culturally appropriate mental wellness services.
“As researchers, we can learn a lot from our partnerships with Indigenous communities that will help us build collaborations with other communities,” says Bull.
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