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Visiting Aboriginal communities, Rod McCormick heard people joke about "random acts of research" and "drive-by researchers" - photo by Martin Dee
Visiting Aboriginal communities, Rod McCormick heard people joke about "random acts of research" and "drive-by researchers" - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 8 | Aug. 3, 2006

Health Research With, By and For Aboriginal People

By Lorraine Chan

Aboriginal professors at UBC are closing the distance between healers and those who need healing.

A case in point is Rod McCormick, who is the lead or co-lead of almost  $16 million in nationally and internationally funded grants for Aboriginal health research. His projects range from suicide prevention to genetic counselling.

“Research used to be done on us,” says Education Assoc. Prof. McCormick, who is Mohawk and teaches counseling psychology. “But we’re making sure that research is now done by us, for us and with us.”

McCormick sees an urgent need for change. “There’s a huge disparity in health status between Aboriginal people and othere Canadians.”

He says Aboriginal people have a life expectancy 7.5 years less than that of the general population and are diagnosed with diabetes at two to five times the rate of most British Columbians. As well, unintentional injuries, suicides, HIV/AIDS and alcohol-related deaths show a worsening trend.

McCormick’s research partners at UBC are Jo-Ann Archibald, associate dean of  Indigenous Education; Eduardo Jovel, director of the Institute for Aboriginal Health; and Richard Vedan, director of the First Nations House of Learning.

The four professors steer the B.C. component of the Aboriginal Capacity and Developmental Research Environment (ACADRE) Network, which was created by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in 2002. CIHR is Canada’s major federal health funding agency and has a mandate to create new knowledge and translate it into more effective health services.

BC ACADRE, like its seven provincial counterparts across the country, fosters collaborative research with post-secondary institutions, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organizations and communities. Linked electronically, ACADRE investigators share their expertise and data on assessment, ethical research practices, traditional knowledge, mental health and addictions research.

“BC ACADRE is about building the capacity within Aboriginal communities to design, fund and implement their own health studies,” says McCormick.

Between 2003 and 2005, McCormick and other ACADRE members travelled to First Nations communities to build consensus and buy-in.

“We had to convince Aboriginal people that the research environment has changed and that they now have a big say in how research will be done.”

BC ACADRE only funds projects that are done in partnership with Aboriginal communities. “Effective research listens to the real experts. The real experts are those who have recovered from suicide, those who’ve managed to overcome sexual abuse,” says McCormick. “We’re interested in looking at what went right. What are the connections that lead to powerful and positive outcomes?”

McCormick says BC ACADRE is working to transform the scepticism and mistrust Aboriginal people feel toward health researchers.

“Aboriginal people often say that they have been researched to death, but it hasn’t been relevant research. You hear a lot of jokes about ‘drive-by researchers — the guys with the white van who came to take samples — or random acts of research.’”

To increase the numbers and capacity of Aboriginal health professionals, BC ACADRE has distributed $500,000 in student awards and fellowships since its inception in 2003.

Between 2004 and 2006, Trica McDiarmid, a member of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in Nation from Dawson City, Yukon, won two BC ACADRE undergraduate student awards, each worth about $4,000, to study Indigenous methods and ethics of conducting research with Aboriginal communities.

“I just wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the help I got through BC ACADRE,” says McDiarmid, a single mother of three children.

This April, McDiarmid graduated with a B.A. in Psychology from University College of the Fraser Valley. She’s currently earning a diploma in guidance studies at UBC’s  Faculty of Education and has been applying to graduate school. She hopes to complete her M.A. in clinical or counselling psychology.

“But it’s incredibly competitive. For example, the clinical program at UBC only accepts 15 out of 300 applicants.”

What she values about BC ACADRE goes beyond the financial awards, says McDiarmid. “They really believe in helping Aboriginal students succeed.”

BC ACADRE matched her up with mentor Kim van der Woerd, who, according to McDiarmid, is more angel than mere role model. “Kim is Namgis First Nation and a PhD candidate in Psychology at SFU. She has helped me find research work and meet researchers. Kim even bought me Microsoft Office when I couldn’t afford it.”

McDiarmid says meeting other students at ACADRE conferences confirms that she  — and in turn her children — can dream big. “When I was growing up in Dawson City, there were about six posters hanging on the wall at our band office and I thought those were the only successful Aboriginal people out there. Now I am amazed to learn how many people are working on their doctoral thesis.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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