Youth addressing First Nation health concerns

Research with Canada’s First Nations has identified important links between the health of the environment and the health of local communities.

This health is strongly influenced by the ability to use, and benefit from, local environmental resources – the best resource, of course, being First Nation’s elders.

Geography assistant professor Chantelle Richmond, who is cross-appointed with First Nations Studies, is currently hosting First Nation youth at Western for an intensive summer school session on qualitative methods they will use upon returning to their communities – with Western graduate students – to spend the next eight weeks interviewing their community elders about health and environmental change in their lifetimes.

“The idea is to connect the youth with the elders to capture that local knowledge,” says Richmond, principal investigator for the project Preserving Local Knowledge to Protect health Among Anishinabe Communities on Northern Lake Superior. “We’re looking for the wisdom and to talk to the traditional knowledge keepers.”

In the Great Lakes region, Anishinabe (Ojibway) communities have endured several decades of environmentally exploitative resource development, which has often had long-term consequences, such as compromised drinking water, adds Richmond.

“As a result, the relationship between the Anishinabe and their land has changed over time and local elders have articulated an urgent need to preserve the traditional knowledges, cultural identities and social values intrinsic to Anishinabe concepts of health,” she says.

This Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded project is training Anishinabe youth from two communities in the Great Lakes region (Pic River First Nation and Batchewana First Nation) to undertake qualitative research with their respective community elders. The research will address elders’ perceptions of the causes and consequences of changes to health and environment over time, document special places, medicines, plants and animals within their traditional territories.

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A big part of this study includes an embedded film project, whereby First Nation filmmaker James Fortier and graduate students Kassandra Kulmann and Joshua Tobias will capture the journeys of the youth over the summer months.

Richmond says the main goals of the project is to preserve local elder knowledge about health and environment, to provide a knowledge transfer mechanism between youth, elders and researchers, and to expand the skill set, knowledge base and research potential of participating youth and community collaborators.

“This research will pioneer a critically important area of First Nations’ health research by preserving local elder knowledge, and documenting how this process can be used in a way that will enhance local capacity, protect the environment and improve health,” she says. “Environment and health research with First Nation communities has often failed to provide methods that are relevant and meaningful at the local level. First Nations environment and health research, to have more appeal and uptake, must be accessible to target populations, policy audiences and the research community.”

Richmond adds the First Nation youth will gather once again at the end of summer to talk about the process and how it has changed their perspective of their own communities.

“While it will be interesting to see what we’ll get from the communities, I know it will be of significant help not only to these two communities, but other First Nation communities as well,” she says.