Trudeau Scholar aims to re-establish tobacco as agent of well-being in Indigenous communities

June 21, 2019

By Stacey Makortoff

Kody Doxtater spent nearly seven years responding to crises and tragedies as a firefighter and paramedic for his community Six Nations of the Grand River in Southern Ontario. Frustrated by only being able to respond after events occurred, he decided to focus his attention on prevention.  

“I started to think about the social determinants of health, which is why I focused academically on public health,” says Doxtater. “I wanted to help create conditions to prevent people from getting hurt.”

Doxtater earned a bachelor’s degree with an honors specialization in First Nations studies and a major in health sciences, from the University of Western Ontario. He then moved to the University of Victoria to enroll in a master’s program in public health, Indigenous health, before joining SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences as a doctoral student in the fall of 2018.

Trudeau Scholar Kody Doxtater shows some tobacco seeds.

In addition to receiving a Graduate Indigenous Entrance Scholarship, Doxtater is also one of 20 doctoral scholars across Canada to receive a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Doctoral Scholarship. This three-year prestigious scholarship provides up to $60,000 a year (stipend and travel allowance) and support through its leadership program.

To aid in the prevention of health issues, Doxtater’s research aims to reduce commercial tobacco use and addiction in Indigenous communities. Using traditional Indigenous tobacco culture, he hopes to re-create the conditions to establish healthy relationships with the tobacco plant as an agent of health and well-being.

“Approximately 60 per cent of Indigenous peoples in Canada use and may be addicted to commercial tobacco products, whereas for non-Indigenous Canadians, this number drops to around 12 per cent,” notes Doxtater. “Commercial tobacco use and addiction in a Canadian context is a leading cause of preventable death, disease and illness.”

Drawing from his cultural roots as a member of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, Doxtater illustrates how Indigenous people had healthier traditional relationships with tobacco prior to its commercialization.

“I attended a lecture given by David Kanatawakhon Maracle and he said the word ‘Iroquois’ is a French interpretation of the Mohawk word ‘Rotihrohkwayon’ which translates as, ‘they who carry pipes’,” explains Doxtater. “In our history, tobacco is sacred and its origin is explained in our creation story. It comes from a celestial place known as ‘Sky-World’, from the roots of the celestial tree that sustained the celestial people that lived there.”

Doxtater believes that a synergy of two main factors have contributed to the Indigenous-specific risks associated with high rates of addiction to tobacco: the commercialization of tobacco by the non-Indigenous and the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples as defined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Canadian crafted tobacco policies and control strategies don’t work for Indigenous people. We need new policies that are culturally appropriate which must facilitate the re-establishment of the healthy relationship with tobacco as was once held by Indigenous people across much of North America.”

Doxtater is grateful for the support that the Trudeau Foundation can bring to his research.

“With the Trudeau Foundation’s support, I believe my research can be one step towards reconciliation. The Foundation helps to bring agency and credibility to my research so I have to spend less time explaining my research and getting others on board for support.

“Jointly, we can challenge the negative perceptions of tobacco within Indigenous communities and advocate for culturally appropriate strategies and policies to support tobacco as an agent of health and well-being.

“This can help restore, reclaim, and revitalize our Indigenous cultures,” says Doxtater.