March 14, 2022

UCalgary research program grounded in community improving health for Indigenous women

Wolf Trail (Makoyoh’sokoi) program harnesses the power of partnerships
Elder Violet March provides blessing and prayer for Wolf Trail Program.
Elder Violet March offers blessing and prayer for Wolf Trail (Makoyoh’sokoi) program. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

With a prayer and blessing from Elder Violet March, the Wolf Trail (Makoyoh’sokoi) program has a bright future in helping to improve the health of Indigenous women and two-spirited persons.

Led by a multidisciplinary team of University of Calgary researchers in partnership with advisers and facilitators from Miskanawah, the series of exercise and health education sessions takes a holistic approach focusing on the need to look at the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of a person in order to support health changes that last.

“This project harnesses the cultural strengths and traditions of Indigenous women,” says Dr. Sonja Wicklum, MD, co-principal investigator. “Very importantly, it is rooted in community so that programs can be adapted to a community's unique needs with a view to long-term sustainability. We are honoured to partner with each of the communities involved.”

Participants come together to experience new types of physical activity, learn about nutrition and share their personal experiences in a safe, supportive, and culturally appropriate environment.

“The women in the program do a lot in their community and are strong anchors for their families. The sessions allow them to focus on themselves, reconnect with their culture and learn about healthy lifestyle choices,” says Wicklum.

MP George Chahal requests prayer for Wolf Trail program

MP George Chahal requests prayer and blessings for Wolf Trail (Makoyoh’sokoi) program from Elder Violet March.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Recent support by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) allows the program’s duration for participants to expand to six months from 10 weeks, to support participants in the 10 Indigenous communities.

“Our government continues to take important steps to improve health outcomes for all people living in Canada. Through this project, Indigenous women and two-spirit persons in Alberta and Saskatchewan will have access to tools and resources to help maintain a healthy lifestyle while also strengthening cultural connections,” says federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos.

Different culturally based activities are introduced each week. Examples include POWfit and yoga where some classes incorporate the seven sacred teachings, traditional laws that form the foundation of the Indigenous way of life.

Jackie Mistamuskwa

Jackie Mistamuskwa, POWfit instructor, shares an example of exercise that incorporates culture and inspires joy.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“Our research has shown that Makoyoh’sokoi participants experience improved confidence through the group exercises while developing positive social support systems and learning about health and social resources available to them in their community,” says Levi Frehlich, PhD candidate and co-principal investigator. “Many say the program is motivational, keeping them accountable and providing opportunities to share their experiences through the sharing circle.”

Program facilitators find out what health concerns and questions the participants have and guest speakers are brought in to address their true needs.

“The Wolf Trail program exemplifies the impact that research can have when it is anchored by the community it serves,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research), University of Calgary. “Through deep understanding and a commitment to shared goals, University of Calgary researchers in partnership with Miskanawah have created a holistic program with the capacity for long-term sustainability. We are honoured to partner with each of the communities involved.”

This project is also supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Institutes of Gender and Health (IGN), of Indigenous Peoples’ Health (IIPH) of Population and Public Health (IPPH), and the CIHR – HIV/AIDS Research Initiative, Capital Power, the Melton Foundation, and an anonymous donor whose gift helped secure the PHAC grant.

The program is now available in Calgary (three communities), Edmonton, Piikani Nation, Onion Lake Cree Nation, Flying Dust First Nation, Waterhen Lake First Nation, and Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation (two programs).

Sonja Wicklum is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Levi Frehlich is a PhD candidate in the Department of Community Health Sciences

The Cumming School of Medicine's Indigenous, Local & Global Health Office works to create the future of health and social equity at home and abroad. The office is committed to collaborating with communities to promote engagement, advance equity, inform curriculum and research, and co-design initiatives for impact. 

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting, and being. Walking parallel paths together, ‘in a good way,’ UCalgary is moving toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.