Working with the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council and the First Nations Health Authority, SFU researchers are working to optimize health and wellness for Indigenous children from the moment they are conceived. Photo credit: Kandyce Joeline of Songbird and Oak Photography.

Indigenous-led study to improve child health and wellness

June 19, 2023

by Sharon Mah

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) in Port Alberni is leading a long-term study to improve health and wellness for Indigenous children, with collaboration from Indigenous leaders and communities, First Nations Health Authority, and researchers from Simon Fraser University and the University of Alberta. This work is being funded by a $16 million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The project, called Hishuk-ish tsawalk (everything is one, everything is connected): Restoring healthy family systems in Indigenous communities, is being led by Lynette Lucas, NTC director of health and an adjunct professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS). Lea Bill, executive director of the Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre (AFNIGC), is the project’s co-principal investigator.

The collaborators’ top priorities will be to examine the leading causes of cardiovascular and mental health problems, in Indigenous contexts, and examine the efficacy of existing programs in reducing risk as well as determining the impact of biological and social mechanisms, as they affect children and their families.

“This historic opportunity represents one of the first times that the Institute has recognized Indigenous community leadership in a large research award,” says NTC President Judith Sayers, “and we welcome this announcement as a big step forward in health for our children.”

Community members from 23 First Nations—including the 14 Nuu-chah-nulth Nations as well as the Cree Nations of Maskwacîs, Alberta, and the Cree and Dene Nations of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Alberta—will contribute their leadership, skills and support for this community-led study.

“Elders and other knowledge holders are guiding every step,” says Lucas. “Most stories about Indigenous people tend to focus on stereotypes and deficits. Our intent is to explore the root causes of health disparities giving emphasis to Indigenous ways of knowing.”

Researchers will carry out a cross-sectional study of families and a long-term study of child development.

One objective will be to generate new approaches aimed at restoring traditional family systems by creating supportive environments and reducing negative exposures during early development, starting before conception.

SFU’s research team includes FHS professors Pablo Nepomnaschy, Jeff Reading, and Charlotte Waddell, associate professor Scott Venners and research associate Katrina Salvante. The team will advise on data governance and support the supervision of graduate students’ research activities.

SFU’s vice-president, research and international (VPRI) portfolio will also contribute logistical resources from its institutional strategic awards team to assist with project management as well as staffing and student funding supports.  

SFU VP Research and International Dugan O’Neil says: “This is a very exciting study. We are honoured to partner with the NTC as they carry out such important work in their communities. This partnership embodies our commitment to reconciliation and facilitating successful Indigenous-led scholarship."

Research aims to address early challenges

Nepomnaschy says the project’s main goal will be to identify factors that provide resilience to children to face life challenges, so that they can develop strength and be ready for all the challenges in life.

“SFU is excited to see NTC leading the expansion of this important work,” he says. “We’re pleased to continue our partnership with NTC and look forward to sharing knowledge and expertise and supporting all of the community-based Indigenous research partners across B.C. and Alberta.”

Waddell, who also directs the Children’s Health Policy Centre (CHPC) observes: “NTC’s relationship-based and community-embedded approach to this work will be critical not only to better understand what actions can be taken to improve health outcomes for Indigenous children, but also to provide an Indigenous cultural framework for policy recommendations and guidelines.

“These will enable non-Indigenous stakeholders to engage in appropriate and meaningful ways with Indigenous children and their families."

Embedding an Indigenous lens

One of the most critical parts of this new phase of Hishuk-ish tsawalk (everything is one, everything is connected) will involve Reading working with both NTC and AFNIGC to embed an Indigenous lens to the ethics structures for the upcoming project.

“It’s essential that the work being undertaken is respectful, culturally safe, and carried out with the informed consent of Indigenous community members,” says Reading. “We will also work with the NTC and AFNIGC to develop Indigenous-led data governance and data sovereignty, so that the Nations partnering with us in these investigations will have ownership of, control of, and access to their collected health information.”

Dr. Earl Nowgesic, associate scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health commends the NTC and their collaborators for adding to the growing body of Indigenous-led health research.

“They are leaders in the area of developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) and Indigenous populations. Hishuk-ish tsawalk is exemplary, and has great potential to contribute to the wellness of Indigenous Nations now and for generations to come. Miigwetch.”