Elizabeth Cooper wants to put a focus on the needs of Indigenous men.
An assistant professor in the faculty of kinesiology and health studies at the University of Regina, she recently received $673,200 in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) for her research project called Nurturing Warriors: Understanding Mental Wellness and Health Risk Behaviours among Young Indigenous Men. That grant came in addition to $119,911 in provincial funding.
The project will focus on learning about the mental and physical health needs of Indigenous men, and will take place in Cumberland House, La Ronge, Prince Albert and one more community early next year.
“I really hope we see researchers, and the research community and policymakers and government saying, ‘Yes, women are important. Yes, children are important. Yes, seniors are important, but the men are equally important,’” said Cooper during a phone interview on Thursday.
Cooper said it’s known there are higher rates of health issues, such as suicide and diabetes, among Canada’s Indigenous population, but there has been very little research focusing specifically on men. When she did a search for academic articles written on the subject, Cooper could only find 10 written in North America in the past 40 years.
When Indigenous men are discussed, Cooper said it’s usually done with a focus on subjects such as jail populations, drug addictions or violence, which she described as stigmatizing.
The project will bring together men aged 18 to 34 to participate in strength-based activities to explore mental wellness and healthy behaviours. Cooper said the activities focus on positives, rather than asking people negative questions. For example, participants may be asked what they would like to be doing in five years if they could do anything?
“You’re framing it in a lens of hope, and a lens of capacity building and care and support,” said Cooper.
The fact that Indigenous men need support is no secret in Indigenous communities. Christopher Merasty, a La Ronge resident, began a non-profit called Men of the North in January. The outreach group focuses on supporting men to seek out physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. He also took part in the Walking with Our Angels project, which saw Tristen Durocher walk from Air Ronge to Regina to raise awareness of suicide rates in northern Saskatchewan.
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Merasty has already agreed to form a partnership with Cooper’s research project. He said there is a strong need for supports directly focused towards men. Merasty does a workshop with men at the Besnard Lake Correctional Camp, and said the number one concern from inmates is the need for support.
“A lot of them are scared ’cause when they get out of here there’s nothing in their communities for them. No support, no guidance, no understanding, no resources,” said Merasty.
The issue of mental health has also been seen by touring artists in the province.
This week, the Saskatchewan Cultural Exchange Society (SCES) hosted a trauma prevention workshop to train touring artists how to respond to signs that a youth may be at risk of suicide.
Carol GoldenEagle, outreach co-ordinator with SCES, was doing a storytelling class in a northern community last fall when a boy confided in her that he had been contemplating suicide.
“He told me that and honest to goodness, I didn’t know how to respond. I was shocked and uncomfortable and I felt like running away almost because I didn’t know what to do,” said GoldenEagle.
GoldenEagle later told the principal at the boy’s school, but still wishes she had done more. She also spoke with other touring artists who told her they had had similar experiences. Seeing that it was part of a larger issue, GoldenEagle suggested the idea for the seminar to SCES’ executive director.
Cooper praised Merasty’s work. In order for there to be change, she said the communities need to be directly involved.
“Almost word for word when he sent his vision statement it matched up almost exactly with what the objectives are. So for me, it was a little bit of reassurance that we really are in the right place with research,” said Cooper.
Cooper fears the biggest challenge will be getting all levels of government to pay attention to the results of her research and use it to take action.
“Our government has a history of not actually honouring their word when it comes to Indigenous issues. And there are a lot of priorities within the budget, and will this be a top priority for them? So far it hasn’t been,” said Cooper.
Merasty said getting the right partnerships and tools will be key to pushing the issue of Indigenous men’s health in a positive direction.
“Definitely change is coming. We’re going to be restoring a lot of hope in a lot of communities,” he said.