Building relational accountability with Indigenous communities

May 03, 2018

Chantelle Richmond, CRC in Indigenous Health and Environment

Story by Rob Rombouts

“Academics can’t just do research on Indigenous communities; they have to do research with Indigenous communities.”

For Chantelle Richmond, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography, it is time for Indigenous health research to fundamentally change.

“Research focused on Indigenous health is growing, but so are inequities. So why is this?” asked Richmond.
Richmond is the newly named Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health and the Environment. She is part of a growing movement of academics and Indigenous community members who feel that much of the research involving Indigenous communities is too narrowly focused, and does not take into consideration the deeper and more complex situations facing many communities.

When researching health, for instance, researchers often focus on narrow areas such as disease burden or behaviours, without considering the other issues that may determine the health and situation of Indigenous people. This could include reverberations and continued effects of the Indian Residential schools, lack of healthy food options, and lack of continued and appropriate access to health care.

Researchers may also view issues from a biomedical perspective “that too often forces dichotomies of health and well-being,” said Richmond, not giving proper consideration to Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous approaches to health, which generally consider health on a continuum of wellness.

Richmond’s CRC will build on the concept of relational accountability to examine the processes that both support and constrain relationship building in Indigenous health research. Richmond will consider how to help bridge gaps that may occur as partners view the world through different experiences and philosophies. This includes Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews, but, as many of the problems are multi-faceted, it also includes bringing together researchers from different fields to share knowledge.

“Sometimes we are coming from different worlds and perspectives,” said Richmond. “How do we overcome that?” The change, Richmond says, has to happen with academics, and trainees, connecting them with community members.

Changing the approach can have an impact beyond research. “If we can have better understanding of the different ways of knowing, we can better move toward reconciliation,” said Richmond.

The CRC will connect and expand upon three projects Richmond is already working on: the Interdisciplinary Development Initiative on Applied Indigenous Scholarship, which focuses on the academic environment; the Indigenous Mentorship Network Program of Ontario, which focuses health training environments; and an international SSHRC Insight Grant, which focuses on global Indigenous connections with the land.

“The University is focused on what it does well, but if it wants to make big change, we have to re-think our approach to the topics,” said Richmond. “Indigenous research can no longer be a theoretical exercise; we must to do research that will not only ensure real impact in the communities we work with, but it should also bring communities closer to their goals of self-determination.”

“The answers will not come merely from doing more (or spending more on) research,” said Richmond, “but will be realized through a fundamental reorientation of how we do research.”