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A Framework for Indigenous Mental Wellness Research Grounded in Indigenous Knowledge

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Across Canada, there are profound gaps in access to mental health services and mental health outcomes within Indigenous communities. But no action on these issues can be successful without first understanding them through an Indigenous lens.


In Indigenous communities across the country, access to mental health services and successful mental health outcomes remain beset with barriers and persistent inequity. At this time of Truth and Reconciliation, a robust understanding of Indigenous mental wellness disparities — the kind of understanding that only comes through comprehensive scientific research — is indispensable. But, critically, in order for that research to truly illuminate the shape of this gap, it must have an Indigenous lens fixed firmly in place. It must engage with Indigenous voices and respect Indigenous ways of knowing. 

The time is past for looking in from the outside. It’s time instead for the convergence of expertise and perspective provided by Indigenous researchers working in fields like nursing.

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Lisa Bourque Bearskin
Lisa Bourque Bearskin

“New Indigenous nursing researchers being mentored under the BC Chair program acknowledge it’s a time for bringing ancient wisdom into the original tapestry of today’s nursing world,” explains Lisa Bourque Bearskin, CIHR Indigenous Health Research Chair in Nursing and associate professor at Thompson Rivers University (TRU). “A time where Indigenous nurses’ unique contributions are brought into focus, and we recognize that we cannot sacrifice the old for the new or the new for the old, but we have to bring them into balance in the centre of the collective whole. Through Indigenous nurse-led research, these personal, professional, and public spaces will require us to negotiate a place where both can be incorporated into new ways of thinking.”

Nikki Hunter-Porter
Nikki Hunter-Porter

This torch of understanding has been picked up by TRU’s Master of Nursing student Nikki Hunter-Porter, a member of the St’uxwtéws Secwepemc First Nation. At this early point in her career, Hunter-Porter has already worked in eight different First Nations communities, accruing first-hand experience in the mental wellness gaps that persist in British Columbia, as they do in Canada on the whole. Hunter-Porter drew on this experience to formulate the essential research questions and, as a direct and recent descendant of residential school and Sixties Scoop survivors, felt equipped to ask these questions with the empathy and perspective the subject required. 

“This research aims to determine the social, cultural, and systemic factors that influence the delivery of mental health wellness services to the Peoples of my home community St’uxwstews, a rural First Nations community in British Columbia, with opportunities to create positive impacts within other First Nations communities,” explains Hunter-Porter. “The research is grounded in the strengths of St’uxwstews and First Nations Peoples while acknowledging the barriers and challenges that exist within the mental health-care systems and structures. Indigenous research methodologies will be used as an overarching framework to embed Indigenous thinkers, voices, knowledge, cultural practices, protocols, and concerns in every step of the research process.”

Even the best question, unfunded, goes unanswered

Though research of this type is chronically underfunded, Hunter-Porter — with the aid of Bourque Bearskin — was able to apply for, and receive support from independent research and development not-for-profit Mitacs in partnership with Mental Health Research Canada.

Candice Loring

“Seeing the proposal for this project was just unbelievable,” says Candice Loring, Senior Advisor, Indigenous Relations and Initiatives at Mitacs. “It matters so much to have people like Nikki working in these places, people who don’t come to this from a place of sympathy and pity, but from a true place of understanding and leading with the heart. Historically, research was done on Indigenous people and not for, with, or by Indigenous people. What Hunter-Porter is doing is taking the voices of all the Indigenous people in her community, weaving those voices together, and creating a platform for better awareness and policy in how we approach Indigenous mental health.”

Historically, research was done on Indigenous people and not for, with, or by Indigenous people.

Knowledge from the Secwepemc Peoples, for the Secwepemc Peoples

Hunter-Porter’s project “Exploring the Experiences of First Nations Mental Wellness with Skú7pecen (Porcupine),” is rooted within stseptékwlls, the traditional oral Secwepemc teachings and stories, held since time immemorial and passed down through generations. She sees this as a way to centre local values, knowledge, and tradition into the work for the benefit of the whole community, herself included. “Through this research process, I’ve been able to reconnect with my home community, learn about my family’s history and traditional knowledge systems, and understand how important it’s to protect our knowledge as Secwepemc Peoples,” says Hunter-Porter. “I always acknowledge my knowledge teachers and mentors, my family, and my Secwepemc Nation, as this is how we continue to build upon and protect our traditional Indigenous knowledge to continue to support our people in their health and wellness journeys.”

Hunter-Porter’s research is ongoing, and while the potential positive mental health outcomes of her project are profound, they represent just one bright light of hope in a wide sea of persisting inequity and need. The road to Truth and Reconciliation will lead through many other such projects in many disciplines, led by Indigenous researchers around Canada with similarly personal — but individually unique — experience and empathy. The questions remain for all of us whether we will work to ensure that these voices, too, are supported.


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