school have entered into with Dr.
Willows,” he says.
Dr. Cheryl Currie, an AIHSpublic health researcher at theUniversity of Lethbridge, sharesWillows’ commitment to workingwith indigenous communities.
“The community needs to lead the
research process and be empowered,”
she says. “As researchers, we are
allies and have tools that can help.”
Currie works on issues such
as prescription drug abuse and
indigenous peoples’ experiences
with the mental health system.
She believes research must focuson solutions and also address rootcauses—not just symptoms. Formany wellness issues, trauma is amajor cause. “I don’t think we canunderstate the effects of residentialschools, which have spannedgenerations,” she says.
A growing body of research showsthat adverse childhood experiences—such as those many aboriginalCanadians had at residentialschools—dramatically affect lifelonghealth. “We often focus on copingbehaviours (such as substance abuse)
rather than root causes,” Currie says.
“But we must also consider the root
causes of the health inequities we see
today, as well as protective factors—
the things that help people remain
healthy or return to health.”
An example of a protective factor
is traditional culture. Research by
From left to right, AIHS researchers Drs. Cheryl Currie, Noreen Willows and Gita Sharma.
Currie and others has shown thatindigenous Canadians are healthierwhen their lives include traditionalactivities and values.
“Research in a number of countries
has shown that there are aboriginal
ways of knowing how to be healthy
that are valid and that matter,” she
says. “A practical focus that considers
both western and aboriginal ways of
maintaining health and returning to
health is needed.”
Dr. Gita Sharma, director of the
U of A’s Aboriginal and Global
Health Research Group, agrees
indigenous people need both
traditional knowledge and western
medicine to be healthy. The AIHS-
funded researcher is looking for
ways to improve cancer screening
in northern Alberta’s indigenous
communities. Research shows
indigenous people are generally less
likely to be screened for cancer and
may not receive the care they need
in the early stages. “The sooner you
diagnose people, the sooner they
get the treatment and the better the
outcome,” she says.
Sharma works with several
communities to find out how people’s
knowledge, attitudes and behaviours
affect cancer screening. Preliminary
research shows people have limited
knowledge about cancer. “People
thought that once you got diagnosed
with cancer that was the end.”
Another important protective
factor of health is distance to medical
care. In some remote communities,
people often have to travel long
distances for cancer screening and
treatment. “There’s an emotional
cost to being away from family and
friends at a time when people need
more support,” Sharma says. Being
away from your culture, language
and food is also stressful, and some
people want traditional treatment,
which isn’t an option outside of their
Sharma hopes that by working withindigenous communities, researcherscan help them get the care they need.
“What we haven’t had is research to
know why First Nations people aren’t
using services,” Sharma says. “With
the data, we could improve cancer
Physician Dr. Esther Tailfeathers
works in indigenous communities
across Alberta. She has seen
significant gaps between First
Nations people and the general
population in all levels of health
care. She thinks health research will
help close the gaps, especially if
indigenous people are co-researchers
and the focus is finding solutions.
“There’s a new spirit I see amongresearchers in Canada and globally,that the research has to be used tohelp people,” she says. “Researchneeds to be done in a practical way.
We need to use it for solutions, notsolely for academic purposes.”
Indigenous people are healthier when their
lives include traditional activities and values