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Nurturing Warriors

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

Using Positive Space to Move into Hard Topics

Women outside
Dr. Elizabeth Cooper at the Walking with our Angels teepee camp waiting for a sunrise pipe ceremony to start is support of suicide prevention. Photo: Dr. Elizabeth Cooper

By Kathryn Thompson for SHRF

Little is known about the mental wellness and health risk behaviours among young Indigenous youth in Canada; less is known about young Indigenous men, and information on Indigenous fathers is virtually non-existent.

In fact, when Dr. Elizabeth Cooper, assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina, searched for academic articles written on the subject, she found less than 20 written in North America in the past 40 years.

She also found that the majority of those articles focused on the negative health behaviour risks such as going to jail, joining gangs, or contracting HIV. The issue with this type of research is when we focus on what’s gone wrong, can go wrong or will go wrong, we have a difficult time understanding what’s actually working and why.

“Instead of focusing on all the problems with the systems,” says Cooper, “Let’s focus on what’s working, because if we know what’s working and why, we can start recreating more of it.”

That is something she hopes to garner through her strength-based research approach, an approach that is grounded in the lessons she learned as a musician, where through consistent hard work, eventually you are able to create change. Cooper started playing the violin at the early age of five, and teaching violin when she was 14. Music has been a big part of her life ever since.

“Perhaps the most important lesson from music that I always try to instill when working in communities or teaching, is that interpretation is the key to a beautiful performance, but interpretation does not work in isolation,” she says.

Hence why community-driven research, where the community identifies what they need and why, is so important. Like creating beautiful music, creating change through research can’t be done in isolation.

This unique approach is about relationships and releasing control of the preconceived outcomes or hypotheses that drives most research. It’s about having tea with elders, going fishing with community members or baking your favourite cookies for the town potluck.

When the focus is on building trust through these strength-based activities, we create the capacity for people to open up and share honestly. For example, if a complete stranger asked you to tell them exactly how often you exercise for health research purposes, how inclined would you be to tell the truth?

Chances are that question and answering it truthfully would pose some resistance for you. You might even be more likely to add a few minutes or up the intensity of your workout in your answer. That’s why inviting the community to drive the research based on what they need and listening to them without making assumptions creates a space that is respectful.

“I work in those spaces and with the people to build capacity, to encourage people to be honest about what's working, what's not working in their lives,” says Cooper.

It allows her to use a positive space to move into hard topics, because it’s not all about the positives. It’s well-known there are higher rates of health issues, such as suicide and diabetes, among Canada’s Indigenous populations. These issues are real, and they are hard to talk about sometimes.

Cooper believes her extensive experience working with provincial, national and international communities that have often been made vulnerable has helped her do this work well.

For example, she participated in a multi-year International Infectious Disease and Global Health training program, working with 35 other PhD and Postdoctoral Fellows who lived and worked in Canada, Columbia, Kenya and India; and her PhD work was conducted with urban Indigenous women and girls in Manitoba, Canada, to explore their thoughts about what it means to be happy, healthy and safe.

“I often say I am a translator between community, academics, and government, because I’ve worked in all these different spaces,” she says, “So my role is to translate what’s being said so everyone is heard. By doing it this way, we can create real change.”

A change Cooper is passionate about being a part of, and what drives her to do this type of work. In fact, she’s adamant of only undertaking research when communities say they need it, and when there's a story that needs to be told, which is why Cooper is excited about this current project.

“It’s no secret Indigenous men need support in Indigenous communities,” she says, “Just look at the Men of the North initiative that started in January, and the Walking with Our Angels project, where we saw Tristen Durocher walk 635 kilometers to raise awareness for suicide prevention.”

The Men of the North founded by Christopher Merasty is a support group with a mission to provide opportunities that help and encourage men to seek lasting positive mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. The idea came to Merasty after bumping into a fellow on the street who had nowhere to go, no place to stay, no money and who clearly needed help.

Cooper knows she’s on the right track, because these initiatives started around the same time she was awarded funding from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) for her research project called Nurturing Warriors: Understanding Mental Wellness and Health Risk Behaviours among Young Indigenous Men.

The scope of Cooper’s current project has changed slightly as a result of receiving additional funding of $673,200 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and a new partnership with the Men of the North.

“I’m so excited that SHRF saw this as something important, because it hasn't been something that's been important,” says Dr. Cooper, “And now with the CIHR funding, and four years to do this work, there is more we can do.”

This project will focus on learning about the mental and physical health needs of Indigenous men aged 18 to 34, and will take place in LaRonge, Prince Albert, Cumberland House, and Beauval (North, South, East and West regions of Northern Saskatchewan). The approach to research is from all four directions so that we have that wraparound understanding, which was decided by community members, who also identified the communities that will be involved.

“It’s the first piece we need to do, that love piece, and that's what this nurturing warriors is about,” says Cooper. “Once we do that we can move into that place of speaking our truth in a way that the government and healthcare can hear.”

By doing this kind of work, where you really are engaging multiple stakeholders, multiple places, and have a point of involving healthcare and government and everybody around the table, which is what this project is aiming to do, then we really can make change.

The impact for change has the possibility of going beyond the four communities in Saskatchewan. Cooper has colleagues in Kenya, India, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and many more places, that are inspired by her work; inspired by what’s being done in Saskatchewan, and discussions are already underway to be able to share lessons learned so they can do similar work in their provinces and countries.

Learn more about Dr. Elizabeth Cooper and her work:

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