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A gathering place with large white tents with tall trees in the background
Gathering on the land: Indigenous ways of knowing can ensure that communities reclaim and promote health and healing. (Melody Morton-Ninomiya), Author provided

Indigenous community research partnerships can help address health inequities

Building equitable research partnerships is a strong starting point for self-determination of Indigenous communities. Research is critical to inform policies that advance reconciliation and support Indigenous sovereignty.

Society relies on research to develop and contribute knowledge that can be translated into improved health and wellness. Research can also help identify, understand and address health inequities, that is, differences in health that are unnecessary, avoidable and unjust. When it is done appropriately, research contributes to more effective and sustainable health services and care products, resulting in a more equitable and strengthened health system.

We are an interdisciplinary team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers. Our goal is to promote community-centred research approaches that privilege Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being through all aspects of the research lifecycle. To assist with this, we have developed an open-access online training resource called Indigenous Community Research Partnerships.

Equitable research partnerships are one starting point to self-determination of Indigenous communities. Indigenous Community Research Partnerships is an open-access online training resource developed to educate researchers about respectful research partnerships.

The training resource provides guidance to researchers and others embarking on partnered research with urban, rural or remote Indigenous communities.

Whether you have lots of experience in community-based research or are a newcomer to the field, we believe our training resource has a lot to offer on your journey of learning about community-centred research. Our aim is to assist the research community to develop equitable partnerships that prioritize Indigenous ways of knowing and ensure that Indigenous communities are the primary benefactors.

Failure of western-oriented research approaches

In our society, the bias of colonial, or western-oriented and western-constructed knowledge dominates the conduct of research. The evidence derived from this standpoint reflects the structural racism that privileges knowledge derived from western methodologies. This knowledge is then used to inform the development of the policies and processes that organize our health and social systems.

Consequently, western-oriented academic approaches fail to promote Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing in policies that affect these communities. For example, biomedical health-care models reflect values, knowledge systems, research and care practices that do not meet the needs of Indigenous people. Western-oriented academic research is often focused on disparities and deficit-based approaches identified by researchers. The approach, driven by the outside looking in, fails to consider and prioritize community needs. As well, many researchers are trained within a system that is dominated by (western-oriented) perspectives that do not allow for, or even recognize, alternate ways of thinking or worldviews.

Indigenous people demonstrate tremendous cultural resilience and capacity to innovate, and Indigenous ways of knowing can be a way forward to improve health and wellness.

Indigenous people are more likely than the general population to experience ongoing marginalization and poor health. Ineffective policies perpetuate these health and social inequities.

Principled partnerships

Research conducted with authentic partnerships and full community engagement with Indigenous people is urgently needed to address health inequities. Many researchers may not understand how to work with Indigenous communities and lack resources to guide them in conducting research that is equitable, inclusive and respectful of diverse Indigenous knowledge, ethics, practice and research sovereignty.

A principled approach to research engages different parties who may use or be recipients of research outcomes or be impacted by them. A principled approach promotes active reflection upon principles that all parties agree are important and prioritizes relationships in research partnerships. The purpose of a principled approach is to promote community relevance, participation, ownership and reciprocal capacity building, and to ensure that research will benefit Indigenous communities, centre on partnerships with Indigenous people and prioritize Indigenous ways of knowing.

A principled approach begins with following the key principle of Reconciliation of Ethical Spaces:

“Protecting Indigenous ethical space involves a series of stages of dialogue starting with conversations prior to the design of research through to the dissemination of results and perhaps even afterwards. Fundamental to this process is an ongoing respect for both parties’ ethical spaces and a continual questioning of ‘is this ethical?’”

Research that benefits Indigenous communities

Effective research requires a deeply engaged and relationally accountable approach to partnerships with Indigenous communities. In academic and learning institutions, researchers must learn to cultivate and invest in genuine relationships to generate useful and relevant evidence.

The Indigenous Community Research Partnerships training resource was developed to educate researchers and researchers-in-training in the development of respectful research partnerships with Indigenous communities that can lead to the conduct of research that advances societal change. The intent is to prepare researchers to work in ways that are important to Indigenous communities and individuals, who will be the ultimate beneficiaries of research.

Read more: How a university can embed Indigenous knowledge into the curriculum and why it matters

The Indigenous Community Research Partnerships training resource complements other important initiatives to advance health equity and societal change. There are also important policy level initiatives in academic institutions.

Academic research can be conducted to better benefit Indigenous communities. Research partnerships are central to building the research evidence that meets Indigenous community-level needs. Researchers can support work that leads to societal change and opportunities for everyone to achieve optimal health and wellness.

A principled approach to research will contribute to what should be the ultimate goal, namely, health for all.

We thank the following people for their support and contributions to the article: Melissa Ireland, director and interim senior advisor, Office of Indigenous Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University; Penny Moody-Corbett, retired associate dean research, Northern Ontario School of Medicine; doctoral student Andrew Forbes at the University of Ottawa; professor Ian Graham at the University of Ottawa and lead of the Integrated Knowledge Translation Research Network; Rebecca Sweetman and Julian Enright who are members of the Arts and Science Online Multimedia Team at Queen’s University.

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