Who I am. I am a Nishnawbe:kwe (Oji-Cree Woman) and a member of Aachiko-saakahikaniik (Sachigo Lake) First Nation in northwestern Ontario, and was born and raised near Ottawa, on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnabek, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Ojibway/Chippewa peoples. I am an uninvited visitor on the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish speaking peoples. Specifically, the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim-speaking people of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nation, and the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking Tsleil-Waututh, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, and kʷikʷəƛ̓əm Nations, with the privilege of income, education, housing, and being a white-presenting Nish:kwe. I am a PhD candidate in the school of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and my research explores the impact of the dual public health emergencies in B.C., overdose and COVID-19, among urban Indigenous young people.
I have lived off-reserve my whole life. I grew up in a small town and I have spent the last 10 years living in major cities. This formative time coincided with my journey to reconnect to my culture and identity and unpack inherited family trauma as a third-generation residential school survivor. Because I did much of this (un)learning in diverse, vibrant, and volatile urban environments, I have grown deeply connected to urban Indigenous communities and cultures. It is true that in an urban setting we sometimes reimagine traditional practices to fit new environments and contexts, and these become intertwined with others from distinct nations, as many of us are on similar journeys of reconnection; contemporary interpretations. This influence transcends all aspects of my life, but it wasn’t until this year, by the force of a global pandemic, that I truly began to understand Indigenous approaches to research and epidemiology.
My Experience Pursuing a PhD in Public Health during a Global Pandemic. When I began my PhD program in 2018, I knew 2020 was going to be one of the hardest years of my academic career. I often reflect on this time I spent worrying about the year 2020, and sometimes I wonder if it was a premonition or foreshadowing. My comprehensive exams were a three-day process at the beginning of June, which I needed to pass in order to carry on to candidacy. As I agonized over the enormity of 2020 for the first two years of my program, I was embroiled in intense coursework studying epidemiology, biostatistics, and research methods. Then 2020 finally arrived, and two months into our official exam preparation the COVID-19 crisis hit B.C. Everything ground to a halt, yet we were expected to continue studying full-time for our exams, as they shifted to an at-home test but otherwise remained the same: Day 1 was a six-hour epidemiology and biostatistics exam; Day 2 was a six-hour proposal; and Day 3 was an oral critique of a manuscript to a panel of expert faculty (over Zoom, of course).
As a budding epidemiologist, I couldn’t help but feel my relevant skillset was being sidelined during critical moments throughout this pandemic in order to prepare for a test that felt less significant than the real-world test rapidly evolving around me. More importantly, I had the nagging feeling that, like many of our experiences with other illnesses, Indigenous peoples would likely face more barriers to care and support if they contracted COVID-19 or if it entered our communities. At the same time, unable to visit with friends or travel home to see family, I felt doubly isolated studying at my apartment, growing anxious for being unable to separate home and work environments. I sympathized with my Indigenous peers who were similarly unable to return to community, engage in milestone and long-awaited ceremonies, or visit with Elders.
I passed my exams; but I continue to struggle daily as we all do, with wanting to visit my parents, aunties, and kokums. I know others have lost parents, aunties, and kokums to COVID-19, and I grieve with them. I have grown Zoom-fatigued and academically burnt out. I mourn the loss of so many Black and Indigenous cousins at the hands of the police state. I have grown weary from advocating for basic human and environmental rights, and weary of waiting for the outcome of a colonial election in which I have no say. These are times in which health and social justice research feels both transformative and impossible; however, in periods of rapid social change, I know I must persevere for the sake of my family and community.
True community-based, Indigenous research. I view it as my responsibility to conduct my work in a good way that centers relationality, reciprocity, and respect. Under non-emergency circumstances, I would have placed all my other work on hold until after my comprehensive exams; however, the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver, with whom I am engaged in research, was suddenly faced with COVID-19 related public health restrictions that conflicted with harm reduction protocol already in place to mitigate overdose risk. Social isolation, increased hygiene recommendations, and physical distancing coupled with many shuttered essential services in the neighborhood signaled for us to set our regular research activities aside and quickly respond with outreach for folks using substances around the neighborhood—not just our Indigenous kin, but anyone and everyone who needed safe equipment and other supports.
As Indigenous epidemiologists engaged in community-based research, we fulfill our role in the (w)holistic urban ecosystem by showing up for our community in whatever ways are needed—beyond those which involve research. This, to me, felt like the most important work I could be doing and at the same time this allowed me the mental space to study in preparation for my exams. In this way, responding to our urban community’s needs brought a sense of calm to my life as I realized I was not sidelined at all; I was living and breathing true community-based, Indigenous research, which sometimes looks nothing like research at all, but feels every bit as important.
This article is a component of a collection that will be published by the Royal Society of Canada. The collection is available here: https://rsc-src.ca/en/covid-19