Dr. Carrie Bourassa, IIPH’s scientific director and a faculty member in the community health and epidemiology department of the university’s College of Medicine. (Photo: David Stobbe)

New national Indigenous health research plan prioritizes Indigenous-led agenda

Supporting Indigenous individuals and their communities to drive Indigenous health research is a key goal of the new five-year plan of the national Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health (IIPH), a Canadian Institutes of Health Research institute based at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

“To truly address the serious health inequities that exist in comparison to the general Canadian population, Indigenous people need to lead the Indigenous health research in Canada,” said Dr. Carrie Bourassa, IIPH’s scientific director and a faculty member in the community health and epidemiology department of the university’s College of Medicine.

Under Bourassa’s leadership, the institute spent the past two years engaging with grassroots community members, organizations, and researchers across Canada to inform the new strategic plan which will guide research investment of roughly $43 million to 2024.

“We are proud to have developed the strategic plan with community voices and priorities at the forefront. I want to thank everyone—especially the Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and community members—who contributed to the development of this plan,” Bourassa said in launching the plan at the university’s Gordon Oakes Red Bear Students Centre.

A significant change will be to flow CIHR funding directly to Indigenous communities (rather than, for instance, requiring Indigenous communities to partner with universities), enabling communities to control the research and the sharing of new health knowledge with their communities. Research funding opportunities will be designed so that Indigenous peoples are an integral part of the entire research process.

Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous research approaches will be valued in the research funded by the institute.

“As we work in partnership with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples, communities, researchers and agencies to improve the health of Indigenous Peoples, it is imperative that we recognize Indigenous knowledges and be respectful of Indigenous values, cultures and ways of knowing,” she said.

Grounding research in Indigenous holistic concepts of health is a priority of the plan. Rather than focussing on addressing specific diseases, the strategy will be to look at underlying factors that influence wellness and resilience such as Indigenous self-determination, community wellness, and environmental factors, while advancing research by increasing the number of Indigenous researchers and communities engaged in research, fostering Indigenous research mentorship, and undertaking research into land-based healing strategies such as use of traditional medicines.

This approach will contribute to better health outcomes, more effective health services and products, and a strengthened health care system that focuses on health, wellbeing, and strength of Indigenous Peoples, Bourassa said.

The plan will also encourage development of Indigenous community-based health research networks across Canada. Central to achieving that goal will be the Network Environments for Indigenous Health Research (NEIHR) program which was launched late last year with $100.8 million over 16 years—the largest single investment in Indigenous health research in Canada—and involves all 13 CIHR institutes. The first grants under this program will be awarded in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Other programs the IIPH will support include the Indigenous Healthy Life Trajectories Initiative which looks at the interaction of environmental and genetics factors prior to and during conception for diseases that include diabetes, cardiovascular disease and respiratory diseases.

Margaret Kisikaw Piyesis of the CIHR-funded All Nations Hope Network in Regina, a collective of Indigenous people, organizations and agencies focussed on HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis C, expressed support for the new strategic plan.

“I’m excited that this new plan opens the door for Indigenous communities to access CIHR funds so that as Indigenous people we can look for health solutions for Indigenous communities,” Kisikaw Piyesis said.

She stressed that more research needs to be done on the underlying causes of diseases such as poverty, homelessness and addictions and on determining the factors that promote resilience among Indigenous people living with diseases such as HIV. 

The IIPH, the first federal health research funding institute in the world dedicated to Indigenous Peoples’ health, relocated from Ontario to USask last fall. 

“With this exciting new plan and under Carrie’s visionary leadership, this institute will build on the strengths of our growing USask hub of Indigenous health research and advance our efforts to work in partnership with Indigenous communities to improve health outcomes both here in Saskatchewan and across Canada,” said USask Vice-President Research Karen Chad. 

Creating strategic health research initiatives by and with Indigenous Peoples is a priority across the CIHR and its 13 institutes through CIHR’s Indigenous Action Plan, said CIHR President Michael Strong. 

“I congratulate the Institute on its new strategic plan, which will contribute to improved health outcomes for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples. Over the next five years, the institute will continue to strengthen Indigenous health research by focusing on research driven by, and grounded in, Indigenous communities across the country,” said Dr. Strong.

The institute’s complete new strategic plan is available here.

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