Western professor Diana Lewis is getting a $1.3-million-dollar boost for her research on the effects of industrial developments on Indigenous populations.
The grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will support Lewis’ work co-developing community and value-based frameworks to assess the environmental and health impacts felt by Indigenous populations living near industrial sites.
Lewis, a professor in Indigenous studies and geography and environment, is one of 15 Western researchers to receive a project grant, totaling over $12 million, in the CIHR spring 2021 competition.
To have her work recognized by the federal funding agency was as significant as the financial support.
“When I saw the initial notice, I started to shake,” Lewis said. “I think it took about two to three hours for me to calm down because this has been my life and passion since 2008.”
The award advances research she first conducted working with members of the Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia over a decade ago. The community was bordered by a lagoon known as “A’se’k”; a culturally significant area where the residents’ ancestors once seasonally hunted and fished. The A’se’k also became the dumping ground for 85 litres of effluent a day from a nearby pulp and paper mill – for more than 50 years – until it was forced to close in 2020.
Government- and industry-sponsored studies indicate the community’s health was not impacted by the mill, but those with lived experience know otherwise.
“What was so egregious about the environmental monitoring committee’s work was they hadn’t even asked the community about their health,” Lewis said. “No one had done that from 1993 until I started talking to them in 2010.”
That’s when the women of the small Mi’kmaw community asked for Lewis’ help to convey the deep health-enhancing relationship the “Piktukowaq” had enjoyed with the A’se’k before it was destroyed.
Two-Eyed Seeing approach
Working with the community, Lewis developed an environmental health research framework to collect data. She was guided by the Mi’kmaw principle of Etuaptmumk; a Two-Eyed Seeing approach that draws upon the strengths of both Indigenous knowledge and Western epistemologies.
“I anticipated the government would want to see numbers,” Lewis said. She extracted and collected Statistics Canada information that allowed her to compare health outcomes of the Pictou Landing First Nation with those of neighbouring communities, provinces and national indicators. The data showed the health of the residents had in fact been impacted.
“I didn’t do anything the environmental monitoring committee couldn’t have done.”
She also listened to the oral stories of the community Knowledge Holders, who conveyed how their sacred connection to the air, land and water was ruptured when the A’se’k became contaminated.
“To develop an appropriate methodology, you need to consider how an act like dumping effluent next to a First Nation community impacts their confidence in hunting and gathering and collecting medicines,” Lewis said.
A common theme in the oral histories reflected the consequences of not being able to live sustainably on the land, with one elder reporting, “Our air is polluted, our water is polluted, our land is polluted…might as well say our minds or our beings are polluted.”
“It’s pretty simple,” Lewis said. “They were fearful. That fear affects Indigenous Peoples differently and nobody had taken that into consideration.”
Wisdom in words
The Knowledge Holders would begin their conversations by telling Lewis about the fish in the water.
“They would tell us that on the day the effluent started to flow in the water, the fish started to die, and they would go down to the water’s edge and watch helplessly. What was so meaningful in this whole process was that 50 years later, they were still traumatized. These elders would cry recalling this memory.”
Eager to get to the root of the suffering, Lewis relied on Mi’kmaw language scholars, discovering that the same words one would use to express sorrow to someone for losing a loved one, were the same words the elders expressed to the dying fish.
“That’s our relational worldview and clearly reflected in our words. We have Mi’kmaw words for ‘we sprouted from the landscape,’ and it is how we orient everything around us. This reflects why ‘place’ is so integral to who we are as Indigenous Peoples. It underscores how important it is to use a community and value-based framework to conduct a full environmental health risk assessment.”
Lewis’ work has attracted requests for help from other Indigenous communities in similar situations.
“What I hear from other communities across the country is they are facing the same sort of resistance to doing the appropriate work,” she said. “The regulatory agencies will say a one-size-fits-all methodology works for all populations, and to do something for a special population is too time-consuming or expensive. It doesn’t have to be because we now have the methodology and can apply it in other scenarios and adapt it to local contexts,” Lewis said.
The CIHR funding is allowing her to work with Cree, Chipewyan and Métis communities living near oil and gas extraction sites in the Canadian tar sands, and the Haudenosaunee population neighbouring a City of Toronto landfill site to assess health and environmental risks.
Working with the four communities, Lewis will co-develop their own environmental health frameworks to “ensure the highest ethical standards are followed and promote community health decisions that respect Indigenous values and traditions.”
She also aims to build the next generation of researchers who can carry the work forward.
“What comes out of the work I do doesn’t definitively link to anything (negative), but it gives the community evidence to do comparative work to show these are the health outcomes, and what might explain them. At the very least, it should compel government to realize there’s something up that needs to be investigated.”
A listing of other Western CIHR spring 2021 grant recipients can be found here