Chantelle Richmond’s research and teaching is guided by three R’s: respect, relationships and reciprocity.
Invited as a trailblazer in Indigenous scholarship, Richmond shared her perspective as the Canada Research Chair, Indigenous Health and the Environment, the director of Western’s Indigenous Health Lab, leader of the Indigenous Mentorship Network of Ontario, and as an Anishinaabe member of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation.
Artist Tania Willard, assistant professor in creative studies and visual arts at University of British Columbia Okanagan, joined Richmond on the panel, moderated by former Prime Minister Paul Martin, founder of the Martin Family Initiative, a charitable organization focusing on the early childhood and education of Indigenous children and youth.
Richmond and Willard are part of a growing group of Indigenous scholars integrating Indigenous ways of knowing into research that could drive powerful change to address pressing issues in health care and climate change.
Western News sat down with Richmond following the CFI meeting to learn more about her work incorporating Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing into her teaching and her research.
WN: Paul Martin applauded the work you and Tania have done in paving the way for young people keen to “follow in your footsteps.” You noted the important structural changes that have been evolving since your own journey began. Tell us more about that.
Richmond: When I started my undergraduate degree (at McMaster) in 1997, I really couldn’t find other Native kids. The loneliness is real. Luckily, today, there’s a greater concentration of Indigenous students, which means more representation and diversity.
However, this requires a careful balance. Adding more students, without addressing the structure, is just more colonization. It’s more about ensuring there are enough welcoming spaces, where Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing are embraced.
WN: You also said you are excited to be part of this new wave of scholars and heartened by Indigenous ways of knowing being validated by the tri-council – Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – and by Western.
Richmond: Twenty years ago, when I did my PhD at McGill, there wasn’t a single Indigenous faculty member there. For a long time, I had to be mindful of who I was presenting myself to be. Depending on my environment, I would present as my Native or non-Native self, which meant guarding myself. That’s a heavy burden to shoulder.
Indigenous community members have played a big role in the changes and awakening we are starting to see, bringing the issues that cause those guarded feelings of colonial policies, processes of dispossession and structural disempowerment to light.
WN: At the panel discussion, you talked about the importance of a values-based approach to scholarship. How do you bring what you learned from your own experience to your teaching and work?
Richmond: I see my role very much as a ‘relationship-builder.’ As someone who has ‘been there’ and has been able to successfully navigate the systems and earn a Canada Research Chair, I’m working very hard to bring students in, train them in a good way.
We are also working hard to bring more Indigenous hires to the university and create spaces where we can be our full selves. We walk together, talk together, eat together, cry together and do activities like kayaking together.
A lot of our work happens inside the walls of the university, but most of it happens outside. We’re trying to break down boundaries so we can make university research spaces places that are meeting the needs of communities. This is so we don’t have to be doing the work ‘out there’ but safely in places like medicine gardens on campus and other places where people can fully be who they need to be.
It is very relational. It is paying attention to the people around you and understanding we have roles and accountabilities. Indigenous Peoples take a much more relational perspective, which means we are investing in our relationships and thinking about ways to offer reciprocity. It’s important to me when I work with my students to think about what we are both learning and gaining from each other.
WN: How do you mesh Indigenous ways of knowledge with contemporary research in non-Indigenous settings to benefit Indigenous and all communities?
Richmond: It’s not about going back to hunting buffalo, although that is important, or using Indigenous practices. It’s about incorporating knowledge and the principles that underlie that knowledge system. Again, it is very relational. It is paying attention to the people around you and understanding we have roles and accountabilities.
One of my PhD students, Vanessa Ambtman-Smith, is working with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health studying how Indigenous healing practices can be implemented and used in a hospital environment. Another student, Laura Peach, studied questions around the creation of Western’s Indigenous food and medicine garden – what does that space mean, how is it created, how do we take diverse ways of knowing and principles about food sovereignty, plant, botany traditions, and grow a garden in a university?
WN: You talked about the importance of working with and building trust with Indigenous communities.
Richmond: It’s reciprocity – giving back and understanding and sharing the learning together. This is why we want to be doing more community-engaged work because universities are very rich; they’re rich in people, they’re rich in technology, they’re rich in resources. But they are still lacking in cultural experiences and Indigenous knowledge, so I think we need to be doing better in building connections between Indigenous communities and universities. And you can’t go unless you’re invited.
WN: One good example of that, and one that excited Paul Martin in your discussion, was a project you are involved in thanks to your ties to your own community in Pic River. Can you tell us more about the week-long canoe trip, conceived by Pic River Chief Duncan Michano, and how that engages your students in Indigenous knowledge?
Richmond: The canoe trip explores and examines ways our community is reconnecting and reclaiming their traditional territory. There has been a comprehensive land claim there as long as I have been alive, and it is 2021 and it is still not settled. We were searching for ways to assert our rights as we are losing our territory to cottages and industry.
The purpose of the journey is to rename the places (mountains, rivers, beaches) along the Biigtig (Pic River) as an act of self-determination and to share and pass on community history. The canoe trip is a community-led initiative, where youth are paired with community knowledge keepers to become more familiar with their traditional territory.
This type of research is transforming young people. It’s re-establishing connection with people and community, and sharing old knowledge, sacred laws and teaching. And we’re doing it in a way that brings them into the university and shows them they can do this work here.
WN: What can non-Indigenous community members learn from projects like this and how can they be good allies?
Richmond: When trying to develop those relationships, it requires cultural humility and a willingness to be uncomfortable and to face the reality that you’re not always going to be an expert. It’s taking a values-based approach, centering on community needs.
When you are in a canoe floating down a river, and you only have enough resources to carry you for a couple of days, you need to pay attention. Can anything be more humbling than that?
WN: How do you feel about the work underway and the work ahead?
Richmond: The Office of Indigenous Initiatives is doing great things. We are seeing greater numbers of Indigenous people being hired, changes in the curriculum and pedagogy changes.
At the end of the day, Indigenous knowledge needs to be respected in the academy and Indigenous Peoples need to have leadership roles in a space where they can create and deliver their scholarship.
My colleague, Jamie Voogt reminded me just the other day that ‘trailblazers have the hardest job.’ But you learn along the way, and eventually you’re not alone.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.