Jan. 28, 2019

Noojimo Mikana (A Healing Path): Insights from a Canadian leader in Indigenous Peoples' health research

CIHR's Carrie Bourassa delivers ii' taa'poh'to'p lecture at downtown campus
Carrie Bourassa, scientific director of the Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health.

Carrie Bourassa, scientific director of the Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health.

Carrie Bourassa

Dr. Carrie Bourassa, PhD, didn’t get into the field of Indigenous health on purpose. But, with more than 15 years of experience in Indigenous health research, and as the current scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health (IIPH), you’d never guess it.

“I never had a plan, or a career path — I just knew I had to get to university,” says Dr. Bourassa of her journey. Growing up in Regina’s inner-city, she was the first in her family to complete high school.

“I came from a lot of dysfunction,” she says. “My mom and dad were teenagers when they had me, so I grew up mostly with my grandfather, who had a Grade 3 education. My mom had Grade 7, and my dad had Grade 8. Staying in school was often at the urging of my grandfather, who kept telling me I’d be the first to be a doctor or lawyer. He kept me on that path. But I am very grateful to my parents who also encouraged me and passed on an incredibly strong work ethic.”

A complex network of communities

Now, as the scientific director of IIPH, one of the 13 institutes within the CIHR, Bourassa leads the advancement of a research agenda to improve and promote the health of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples across Canada through funding, capacity-building programs and training for Indigenous researchers. This complex task requires respectful consultation and collaboration with our country’s diverse Indigenous communities.

And it is diversity that sits at the core of Bourassa’s vision. “Even using the term Indigenous is difficult, and not everyone has the same issues,” she says. “For example, treatment for diabetes among First Nations isn’t going to be the same among Inuit and Métis people. Yes, there are things that bind us together, but we need to avoid pan-Indigenism and be flexible in our approach, so we can ensure that the voices and needs of communities are heard.”

Carrie Bourassa is welcomed to the University of Saskatchewan by Karen Chad, the university's vice-president of research, not shown. With Bourassa are, from left: Preston Smith, College of Medicine dean at the University of Saskatchewan, and Adrian Mota, CIHR associate vice-president of research, knowledge translation and ethics. Photo courtesy Carrie Bourassa

With Bourassa are, from left: Preston Smith, dean of medicine and Adrian Mota.

Carrie Bourassa

Privileging Indigenous knowledge

Since her role started in February 2017, Bourassa and her team have conducted community engagement activities across the country, which informed the IIPH’s strategic plan, launching in the spring. This process also helped them understand priorities. “A lot of what we heard was about preserving self-determination,” she says. “Indigenous communities really need to be driving the research agenda.”

By listening to communities, Bourassa works to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing into traditionally colonial research paradigms. “We’re trying to make it so that Elders and Traditional Knowledge Keepers can be nominated as Principle Investigators on grants,” she says. “They’re the real PhDs, and they not only know what the issues are in their communities, they also know how to solve the problems.”

In her inadvertent journey so far, Bourassa has found a personal healing path in community-based research that has led her to exciting leadership opportunities. She has also learned that Indigenous health isn’t something that we can compartmentalize. “It isn’t just physical health. It’s everything you see, everything that touches you. And it’s so vitally important to take direction from community and humble yourself.”

On Feb 7, 2019, Bourassa presented her lecture, Noojimo Mikana (A Healing Path): Research as Reconciliation, at the University of Calgary's downtown campus. The event was the fourth of five lectures in ii' taa'poh'to'p’s 2018-19 Indigenous Knowledge Public Lecture Series. 

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 will move towards genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.