Pursuing Well-being: Lessons from the First Nations Poverty Action Research Project
The Poverty Action Research Project is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (Institute of Aboriginal Peoples Health and the Institute of Population and Public Health). It represents a partnership between the Assembly of First Nations and an academic research team with the lead based at Dalhousie University.
The Poverty Action Research Project (PARP) has its origins in the Make Poverty History Committee established by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in 2008. Academic members of the Committee in cooperation with the AFN subsequently applied for an action research grant to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and were successful with their application.
The project selected five volunteer First Nations from different parts of Canada, hiring a coordinator in each, undertaking background research, developing a profile and working with First Nation representatives in the development of a strategy to address upstream determinants of health and well-being. Subsequently, Project Team members within each region assisted where needed with plan implementation, supporting some initiatives with small grants. The First Nations participating in the project include Sipekne’katik First Nation (Nova Scotia), Opitciwan Atikamekw First Nation (Quebec), Eabametoong First Nation (Northern Ontario), Misipawistik Cree Nation (Manitoba) and T’ít’q’et (British Columbia).
We heard from all five First Nations that they rejected the concept of poverty as defined in the mainstream society with an emphasis on income, employment and related measures.
Instead, they approached the task from a much wider, holistic, perspective seeking to achieve the good life, one that included dimensions such as spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health and well-being; that stressed the idea of balance and harmony among the dimensions, and that showed a preference for “building our community together” rather than focusing on a disadvantaged subset of the community.
We have learned a great deal about how to engage effectively and with mutual respect with First Nations in this kind of project. This includes understanding the protocols that communities have for engaging with external groups, the importance of having the active involvement and support of the elected leadership, recognizing the strengths of First Nations and their leaders, appreciating the differences between academic and community worlds, and understanding the pressures they face on a day-to-day basis.
While our initial thought was that we would focus on individual level determinants and outcomes (e.g., reducing individual poverty and thereby improving health), the strategies that developed and that we helped to implement involved many initiatives that were directed to strengthening communities (e.g., undertaking surveys to improve decision-making; setting up an economic development corporation; piloting a different approach to providing services). While action at both levels is necessary, we have concluded that strategies to strengthen communities and nations have been relatively neglected as a mechanism for enabling First Nations themselves to address the health and well-being of their members.