2020 Achievement Award Winner Profile

Achievement Award recipient driven by commitment to Indigenous communities controlling Indigenous research agenda

Dr. Carrie Bourassa in ceremonial robe
Dr. Carrie Bourassa is the recipient of SHRF's 2020 Achievement Award for her drive, leadership, ingenuity and achievement. (Photo Credit: David Stobbe)

By Greg Basky for Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation

Carrie Bourassa, this year’s recipient of the SHRF Achievement Award, almost passed on an academic career in health research.

Dr. Bourassa had her Masters in Political Science. She’d recently given birth to her first daughter. She’d fought and beat Tuberculosis. She had a good job, as manager of employment equity at the University of Regina. And she was enjoying teaching a class in cultural competency at the University of Regina.

Still early in her career and feeling insecure, Bourassa figured she was about to get fired when Kathleen McNutt, then Vice President of Research, summoned her to her office. Instead McNutt encouraged her to step onto a new career path. “She said to me: ‘You need to get your PhD. You’re an excellent teacher. You should really think about it.’ ”

Bourassa, now Scientific Director of CIHR’s Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health (IIPH), says she resisted at first. Thanks, but I’m not interested, she thought. Then she got a call from Jo-Ann Episkenew, Dean of the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv), inviting her to apply for a tenure track position as an Assistant Professor in their Indian Health Studies program. Bourassa, who is Métis and a member of the Regina Riel Métis Council Local #34, says she made the mistake of phoning her Kookum, Elder Betty McKenna, to complain about her “problem.”

Carrie recalls McKenna not saying much initially, which she took as a bad sign. At the end of the call, her Kookum said: “Well, my girl, the Creator is only going to hit you over the head once or twice in your life. You may not have this opportunity again.” Bourassa showed up at that interview ill-prepared, but developed an instant rapport with the Elders on the panel. Still, Bourassa walked out of the room sure she wouldn’t get the job.

She ended up landing the position, the only proviso being that she had to complete her PhD while holding down a tenure track post. Bourassa has never looked back. She fell in love with FNUniv. More importantly, she fell in love with community-based research, and with serving Indigenous communities rather than her own research interests and curiosity. Bourassa spent the next 15 years at FNUniv, as professor of Indigenous health studies in the Department of Indigenous Health, Education and Social Work.

SHRF’s recognition of Dr. Bourassa in 2020 shines a spotlight on a busy and distinguished academic career that is bringing positive change to Indigenous communities and the field of Indigenous health research. She is helping shape policy that is fundamentally rewriting the rules around how the research establishment engages with Indigenous Peoples. Her knowledge and experience is in demand, locally, nationally, and internationally. And she is building bridges between some of the most marginalized populations in this country and the largest research organizations in Canada.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal and provincial authorities have relied on Bourassa to help protect marginalized Indigenous populations. She was appointed the Indigenous Engagement Lead of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, and closer to home, she’s Indigenous lead on the COVID-19 Rapid Response Team for the Saskatchewan Health Authority. Bourassa, who is a research leader at Regina’s Morning Star Lodge -- an Indigenous community-based health research lab -- also spearheaded the “Protecting our Home Fires” strategy, which is providing critical information to Indigenous communities about the risks of COVID-19 and how to prevent its spread.

Indigenous communities need to drive Indigenous research agenda

Much of Carrie’s work is focused on putting Indigenous Peoples and communities in the driver’s seat when it comes to research about Indigenous Peoples and communities. For too long, she says, Indigenous health research has been focused on the needs of -- and directed by -- university-based researchers and research institutes.

While it’s important to build capacity in academia, says Bourassa, it’s long past time that community-based researchers be the ones steering the research agenda. She’s working to remove many of the barriers to this, including changing policy so that the Indigenous communities in Canada that want to, can now hold and administer their own research funds -- a world-first in research.

The same goes for data: “We need to move toward data sovereignty when it comes to Indigenous health research. We know from earlier studies that self-determination, on its own, is a factor in better health in Indigenous communities.”

Bourassa says she and colleagues at CIHR are working hard to break down these and other barriers. One concrete example is the Common CV (CCV), a process that requires grant applicants to upload an academic resume and request a PIN, which she acknowledges is cumbersome and a poor fit for community-based researchers. “Elders and community members don’t have CVs.”

CIHR is working to streamline the process, she says, and plans to launch a new approach in Spring 2021; the hope is that the other two members of the Tri-Agency -- the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) -- follow suit. “These are things we can and should do.”

Indigenous communities, Bourassa says, are starting to see the possibilities and potential benefits for their people when they are in charge. “We still have a ways to go, but we’re on the right track.”

Mentorship matters

Bourassa is quick to credit Dr. Mary Hampton and Dr. Eber Hampton for opening doors for her early on in her career. Carrie can still remember the disbelief she felt when Eber, then president of FNUniv, made her co-PI (Principal Investigator) on the Indigenous Peoples’ Health Research Centre, a major network grant from CIHR, shortly after she’d finished her PhD (Sociology and Social Studies).

“I only had one or two other grants under me at that time,” recalls Bourassa. “I was really, really fresh, and he said, ‘Well, how else are you going to learn?’” “I look back on some of the opportunities I had and it made me a better mentor, a better supervisor, a better researcher. How do you build capacity if you don’t bring early career researchers along?”

Eber says he was always struck by Bourassa’s unwavering commitment to research serving the needs of Indigenous communities. He recalls reviewing grant proposals alongside Bourassa, and valuing the practical, community-first, lens she brought to the task. “She would always ask: Is this going to be good for the community? Is this the kind of information that’s going to be valuable to them? What’s the likelihood that there’s going to be a positive result as a result of this research project? I really appreciated her way of looking at things.”

Bourassa is paying forward the support she received at the start of her own research career; she finds working with young scholars one of the most rewarding parts of her job. Miranda Keewatin is one of those early-career researchers benefitting from Carrie’s mentorship. Keewatin says she’s inspired by all Bourassa has done to advance Indigenous health research in Canada and abroad. A research assistant at Morning Star Lodge in Regina, Keewatin led on the submission of Carrie’s Achievement Award nomination -- which was co-signed by researchers at the Universities of Saskatchewan, Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto’s University Health Network.

“Her leadership is instrumental in changing how our institutions engage with Indigenous communities,” says Keewatin. “This has influenced my work as a researcher, enabling me to be part of the change by practising and promoting Indigenous research methodologies when conducting community-based participatory research. Carrie has helped shape me as a researcher and the work I do for the community.”

Where to next

Bourassa’s first four years at the IIPH helm are drawing to a close. She led development of the Institute’s new strategic plan, which involved extensive consultation with Indigenous communities. It has been endorsed by CIHR and is embedded in the organization’s overarching strategic plan. Carrie is hopeful she’ll be reappointed for a second four-year term, as she’s eager to roll up her sleeves to complete the work she and her team have started. “I’m really hoping that we can finish breaking down those barriers that we need to work on for Indigenous communities and moving closer to self determination.”

Bourassa also looks forward to continued involvement in the $100.8 million investment by CIHR in the Network Environments for Indigenous Health Research, which is focused on building research and knowledge translation capacity, and continuing to forge partnerships between the academy and communities. “It’s the biggest investment CIHR has ever made,” says Bourassa. “These are going to be transformational. The possibility, the potential, has me excited. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

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