June 21, 2021

Community-led research strengthens connections between UCalgary and Métis Nation of Alberta

O’Brien Institute for Public Health researchers analyze cancer screening rates, and connection between Métis identity and community well-being
From left: Reagan Bartel, Carla Ginn and Karen Kopciuk
From left: Reagan Bartel, Carla Ginn and Karen Kopciuk

Researchers at the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) are working with the Métis Nation of Alberta to promote health equity and understand the relationship between Métis identity and well-being. 

Nishtohtamihk li kaansyr (understanding cancer)

Working with, and learning from, Indigenous communities will lead to better results for researchers and for the community itself, says Reagan Bartel, director of health with the Métis Nation of Alberta.

“To change health inequities, researchers must build true partnerships with communities — and it’s promising to see academia starting to realize just how much they can benefit from an Indigenous perspective,” she says.

Bartel is working alongside Dr. Karen Kopciuk, PhD, a member of the O’Brien Institute and the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the CSM, on a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) funded project examining rates of cancer screening, outcomes and experiences among Métis people in Alberta. 

The health of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples continues to suffer from the ongoing effects of colonialism, says Bartel, contextualizing the importance of the work.

Indigenous people in Canada tend to have poorer health outcomes than non-Indigenous people, including higher rates of certain cancers — however, less is known about Métis people and their cancer experiences and outcomes due to an under-representation of this population in health research, says Bartel.

While the data is lacking, Bartel says the community can provide valuable insight.

“We are definitely hearing anecdotally through our community engagements that many people are experiencing cancer, but not necessarily accessing screening or diagnostic services, or any of the preventive care that comes along with diagnosing cancer.”

Researchers are gathering information with Métis people in Alberta about their cancer screening experiences, reasons for accessing or not accessing cancer screening, and knowledge about cancer screening as part of preventing cancer.

'The community has the solutions'

This work will provide knowledge about the gaps between Métis and non-Métis Albertans on cancer screening uptake and effectiveness, identify barriers to uptake of screening services, and inform future planning for culturally appropriate and safe cancer screening service delivery to Métis and other Indigenous communities in Alberta.

Canada’s Métis people have been traditionally under-represented in health research due to a lack of national registration systems and the challenges of collecting data from a small but widely dispersed population, says Kopciuk.  

“Métis-specific health research is needed to improve the health and well-being of Métis Albertans,” says Kopciuk, adding that working in partnership with the Métis community has been rich in both experience and outcomes.

“The community has the solutions, they just need to be given a platform to move them forward,” she says.

Examining the connection to identity, community, land, and spirituality

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people are strong and resilient, with a holistic worldview that has the potential to contribute to the overall health and well-being of all Canadians, says Dr. Carla Ginn, PhD, a member of the O’Brien Institute and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing.

However, the trauma of residential schools and other colonial policies and practices continue to negatively impact individual, family, and community health, she says.

Ginn is part of a research team that includes Métis Nation of Alberta – Region 3 members Dr. Craig Ginn, PhD, a senior instructor in the department of Classics and Religion, University of Calgary, and Dr. Cheryl Barnabe, MD, a member of the O’Brien Institute and associate professor in the departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences, CSM, who are working on a community-guided project to increase understanding surrounding health, spirituality, and well-being.

Between 1883 and 1996, more than 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children were placed in residential schools in an attempt to eradicate their language, cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs, and assimilate them into Canadian society.

While the negative effects of colonization have been well studied, more research is needed around the role of building community connections and support networks for health and healing, says Ginn.

“Métis ways of healing don’t necessarily fit the Western model, but we know from discussions with the community that they are critical to move toward well-being,” she says.

The CIHR-funded project builds off of past work, which identified the importance of connection to Métis ancestry, community, land, and spirituality for individual, family, and community healing.

Ginn will gather information on the significance of Métis connection to identity through a survey, co-developed with the local Métis community, including leaders Lawrence Gervais, Judy Gentes, and Elder Doreen Dumont/Vaness Bergum, which they will co-distribute within local communities in the Métis Nation of Alberta – Region 3. 

The findings will be disseminated in each local community, followed by community discussion on how to move health forward.

June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day. This is a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First NationsInuit and Métis peoples. 

Karen Kopciuk is an adjunct associate professor in the departments of Oncology and Community Health Sciences at the CSM and in Mathematics and Statistics at the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary.

Carla Ginn is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.