U of S researchers get grant for work on emergency response in First Nations and Métis communities

Saskatchewan researchers have been awarded a grant to work toward changing emergency response in First Nations and Métis communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Research will focus on mitigating how natural disasters, including COVID-19, threaten communities

A wildfire rages through the La Ronge, Sask., area in 2015. (Saskatchewan Ministry of Government Relations)

Saskatchewan researchers have been awarded a grant to work toward changing emergency response in First Nations and Métis communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) was named one of the 15 winners of the North American 2020 TD Ready Challenge presented by TD Bank Group.

A $650,000 grant from the TD Bank Group will see researchers from the U of S's First Nations and Métis Health Research Network (FMHRN) work with partners Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) and Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN–S).

The research is led by Caroline Tait, a medical anthropologist with expertise in gender and cultural safety in the U of S college of medicine and a member of MN–S, and Simon Lambert, a Māori researcher in the college of arts and science with expertise in Indigenous disaster risk reduction. Lambert is a member of the Tūhoe and Ngāti Ruapani tribes from Aotearoa, New Zealand. 

"I'm really excited about this project," Tait said. 

Tait leads the FMHRN Saskatchewan's Network Environments for Indigenous Health Research (NEIHR) centre, which co-leads the national co-ordinating centre for nine such networks across Canada, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). 

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"I really want to pay a lot of respect to the elders and my fellow researchers, Indigenous people here both in Saskatchewan and in the network...there is a lot of talent, a lot of skill, and a lot of passion and now we have got a little bit more money," Lambert said.

The research will focus on mitigating how natural disasters, including COVID-19, threaten First Nations and Métis communities. Lambert said the research would look at gender and sexual identity diversity, and the role of elders and young people in evacuation of Indigenous communities. Lambert said that there is a mix of vulnerabilities and resilience in Indigenous communities.

"The vulnerabilities we see I think certainly stem from a legacy of colonization. And the resilience is coming from a combination of Indigenous traditional knowledge about the environment and hazards and how to respond and react to particular events," he said.

Community leaders a good resource during evacuations

According to Lambert, the areas around Prince Albert and the north have a strong network of emergency managers, first responders and community leaders who have proven on multiple occasions that they have exceptional skills and abilities during evacuations.

"What we now have the opportunity to do, unfortunately with the backdrop of COVID-19, is to actually start looking into the diversity of Indigenous communities and really fine tuning and adapting emergency management and disaster risk reduction strategies to all of the diversity that exists," Lambert said.

Advantages that they offer include on-the-ground knowledge that goes beyond what digital solutions such as GPS and connections to people in remote locations.

"Just the ability to very quickly identify who is at risk and get the necessary care and attention as quick as possible," Lambert said.

That knowledge is combined with knowledge of wildfire movement and where settlements and houses that are vulnerable to flooding and other weather are located. Lambert said the knowledge was extensive, but not formalized in standard databases.

Evacuation experiences have been criticised by Indigenous people for inadequate accommodations, family members being separated, youth being targeted in cities by drug dealers and gangs, and girls and women being vulnerable to sexual exploitation and assault. 

Including Indigenous voices and perspectives is key to disaster risk reduction and can be an act of reconciliation, Lambert said.

"So we are going to start giving more attention to the way Indigenous communities respond and experience evacuations. We have heard certain comments from elders who are reminded of the histories of residential school and there is a lot of sensitivity around that," he explained.

Lambert gave credit to the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority and Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC) and the work they do with Red Cross Saskatchewan.

"I guess what we are hoping to facilitate is better co-ordination and certainly starting to look into the impacts on women, young people, community members, elders. And to see how evacuations can actually be better facilitated and better implemented just to minimize trauma, minimize disruption and maximize safety and security," Lambert said.

Tait said that communities in Saskatchewan have done well when given sovereignty over what happens when disasters hit, and that they have done very well with emergency response and training to mitigate fire and flooding.

"There has been a lot of attention paid to making sure that the communities are in control of what happens and that they are able to make the decisions about evacuation and about what needs to be done at the local level," Tait said.

Evacuees' experiences need more attention: researchers

Tait explained that less attention has been paid in research, as well as emergency planning, to what happens to evacuees when they reach their destination.

"We know that when people arrive from other places as evacuees … they end up in an accommodation that isn't suitable for them. And we know that in that context, generally these are the more vulnerable," Tait said.

Tait explained that the people who come to evacuation sites have already experienced trauma and are worried about their homes the people they left behind.

Then, there are cultural differences, language issues and medical concerns that need to be accommodated.
Evacuees need to ensure their physical safety is protected and that they are kept away from risks outside the evacuation site.

As the project goes forward there is potential for Indigenous groups from around the province to get together, meet, learn and have cultural exchanges.

"We really see this as fulfilling a gap that is of interest for First Nations and Métis people but is one of those areas where they are full out dealing with COVID and so there is not a lot of room to do the work that needs to be done to figure out the answers to those questions. As researchers that's our job," Tait said.

There were minimal evacuations last year, which was good as communities were also battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Give us a dry summer or give us a wet spring that can change very quickly. So that is where we will be beginning immediately to start to look at what's the responsibility of emergency and disaster relief for forest fires and for flooding when COVID is happening," Tait said.

Indigenous organizations leading project

The data collection around COVID-19 will follow the lead of the FSIN and MN-S. Researchers would then return options to the MN-S, FSIN or other organizations.

 "We believe in the sovereignty of First Nations and Métis people around data and data collection and we believe in the sovereignty of communities and individuals to own their narrative and own the information," Tait said.

"Our job is to do the work that our front line people require us to do and under their direction. So it's research in a very different way, it's not the traditional way in which research has been done."

The researchers will also have Indigenous students working with them and provide resources such as honorariums to people who are interviewed.

"We want to move it through so we get to the point that we can hire the right people who can help us to get to a feasibility where we can offer concrete solutions, concrete examples which then Indigenous people have something in their hand that then they can decide and then go to government and to other sources of funding to make this become a reality," Tait said.

Tait explained that the focus of the First Nations and Métis Health Research Network as researchers is to be a repository of creative ideas as individuals and is not merely Lambert, USask and herself.

"This is Saskatchewan First Nations and Métis  people; this is the collective intelligence of all of us working together," Tait said.

"I love the fact that I have the greatest job in the world because my community trusts me to be the repository of their creative ideas. While a lot of people talk about culture and they talk about how important culture is and that culture was attacked by colonialism, it was … the systematic dismantling of that collective intelligence to solve complex problems that hit so hard on First Nations and Métis people."

Tait said that there is a large amount of rebuilding to do and the centre is central to people's creative ideas.

 "I couldn't be happier, I love the fact that we're in this place where as Indigenous people we can all work together and have that collective creative energy again."

 "Through involvement in projects like this, First Nations peoples in Saskatchewan are now positioned to assert their Indigenous perspective on health research, and reclaim a voice that contributes to the dismantling of old order research practices," FSIN Vice-Chief David Pratt said in a release

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  • An earlier version of this story said the University of Saskatchewan received a $6,500 grant. In fact, it was a $650,000 grant.
    Jan 29, 2021 1:12 PM CT


Michael Oleksyn is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter at the Prince Albert Daily Herald.