Relationship-Centred Research: Dr. Holly Graham Begins Her Indigenous Research Chair in Nursing


By Nikki Desjardins for SHRF

When Dr. Holly Graham started in her faculty position at the College of Nursing, her interest was in teaching and practice. But on the path to tenure, Graham received a SHRF Establishment grant that would change her career path and ignite a new passion.

In 2013, Graham began an intervention research project to restore Indigenous miyo-mahcihowin (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) well-being working with Thunderchild First Nation. By developing a community-based program to facilitate empowerment and improve health and well-being, Graham and her team hoped to add to evidence-informed strategies that facilitate empowerment in and with First Nation communities.

Looking at mental health and wellness, there were four clear areas that were needed to make a difference for people to cope. These were relationships, cultural values and practices, worldview or how they saw life, and determinants of health.

“In a time when resources are scarce, it is essential for people to understand the value of healthy relationships – how they can provide a strong buffer during stressful and challenging times,” says Graham. “My research supports the development of healthy relationships as the first component of wellness and a necessary part of developing or enhancing hope.”

It’s relationships that are also the first component of her newly awarded Indigenous Research Chair in Nursing. Co-funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), SHRF and the Canadian Nurses Foundation, and with support from the University of Saskatchewan, the Chair research program will further the development of knowledge and best and wise practices in the area of nursing practice, education, research and administration.

Graham’s program of research is titled wahkohtowin – we are all related. It goes beyond cultural safety and provides the opportunity for self reflection, looking not only at ‘who are you’ and asking, ‘who am I?’

“It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and changing the foundation of relationships to be equitable and respectful,” says Graham. The five-year chair program has many components to achieving the intended outcomes of mentorship and reconciliation within the nursing profession.

With reconciliation, there is no blueprint. We are just finding those steps forward. That’s why one of Graham’s first overarching goals for the program of research is do no harm. We may be well-intentioned within our institutions; however, we need to remain aware of this goal. Then, it is about creating space and opportunity for individual, community and collective healing.

“With truth and reconciliation, reconciliation can seem more like ‘let’s just start right now and move forward’, but that’s why ‘truth’ is before that, because we have to acknowledge what’s happened and look at making amends and changing structures,” says Graham. She recognizes that is really difficult for institutions to take on; it is difficult for individuals to take on; and that is why it’s very challenging work.

“When I wrote the grant, I was very pragmatic about how we do this. I’m not saying it’s the only way, but one of the things I built in was having an Indigenous advisory committee that would provide mentorship and guidance, and also be somewhere where I can go to. No one Indigenous person can speak for all and that is a really important part of this project. When I say Indigenous, I mean First Nations, Métis and Inuit, and each one of those groups have so many different types of cultures and languages within. It becomes very complex and I wouldn’t want to be completely responsible alone for doing that.”

Also guiding Graham’s research program is the Medicine Wheel and The Seven Sacred Teachings of love, respect, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility and truth. These are widely accepted teachings in North America of how we are to treat each other to have harmony.

These Indigenous values and teachings will ensure a holistic approach, guiding the mentoring of nursing students and the foundation to address reconciliation within the College of Nursing and the broader campus community at the University of Saskatchewan. The program will use both Indigenous and Western ways to address and evaluate the impact of mentorship with Indigenous students and will formalize an important first step towards collaborative reconciliation.

“The idea is that we will have two models of teaching and we will attract nursing students, national and international, who will understand that they will learn two distinct knowledge systems of how the world is perceived and this will be a strength,” Graham says.

The Chair program is intervention-based – it’s about providing services, mentorship and looking at those pathways forward in reconciliation. It’s about how we change the way people see people.

“The difficulty was writing a project that encompasses all this in a 10-page proposal. That was the challenge!” says Graham. “But I am very passionate about it.”

Graham credits her experience with her SHRF Establishment Grant as foundational to learning invaluable lessons – personal and professional – and to her growth as a strength-based and Indigenous researcher.

“There are no words to express the gratitude and appreciation I have for being awarded the SHRF Establishment Grant. The complete experience of working with SHRF has been positive, supportive, and reflexive – everything I needed as an Indigenous researcher to survive and thrive! I am so incredibly thankful for the support SHRF has provided me in my academic journey and attribute my research success to this initial relationship.”

This research success includes a long list of collaborations on SHRF grants, as well as national grants, with a focus on engagement and empowerment that has influenced further community involvement in research, even driving research priorities.

“That is the gold standard – when community comes to the researcher and says ‘This is what we want to do. Help us put it together.’ And that has happened!”

We all have healing to do. We are all related, as the title of Graham’s program of research reminds us.

“When we can all view ourselves in relationship to others,” says Graham, “that’s really talking about going down a path of healing.”

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