by CBP Staff, Courtesy of the Cape Breton Post

Collaborative approach to dealing with Mi’kmaq social issues could soon become reality

Tuma Young, Assistant Professor of Mi’kmaw Studies. Photo by CBU

Tuma Young, Assistant Professor of Mi’kmaw Studies. Photo by CBU

SYDNEY – In three years time, the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia may finally get a real opportunity to sit down with the provincial government and set their own social policy, in large part due to nearly two decades of unflagging effort from a handful of stubborn Cape Bretoners.

The latest – and in many ways the most crucial – stage of the journey fell into place in early December, when the Canadian Institute of Health Research announced that a research team, led by Dr. Frederic Wien of Dalhousie University, had been awarded $446,396 over three years for a project called “Building a Social Policy Framework for the Health and Well-Being of Mi’kmaq Communities: A Two-Eyed Seeing Approach.”

Cheryl Bartlett, a retired biology professor from Cape Breton University, and Tuma Young, an assistant professor of Mi’kmaq studies at the university, are the two Cape Bretoners on the nine-member research team.

Using the two-eyed seeing approach, Wien’s research team will examine the opportunity for Mi’kmaw people living in Nova Scotia’s 13 First Nation communities to design social policies and programs related to social assistance that suit their culture and community conditions.

Previous research has shown that life on social assistance is characterized by poverty, stress, insecurity and parenting challenges, which contribute to negative outcomes in health and well-being, particularly in First Nation communities, where a high percentage of the population depends on social assistance.

According to Bartlett, the principle of two-eyed seeing was pioneered by Mi’kmaw elders and researchers at Cape Breton University and its antecedents. Two-eyed seeing can be described as a collaborative approach to science education and research that gives equal weight to indigenous and Western knowledge.

Bartlett said the seeds to the entire process were first planted at the University College of Cape Breton back in the early 1990s, when Bartlett was still teaching biology in the classroom. Being a scientist, Bartlett set out to discover why there were no Mi’kmaw students working toward degrees in the natural sciences at the university.

“I was good friends with Murdena Marshall from Eskasoni who was on staff at the time. I asked her, and the short answer to a good question was: ‘Well, we Mi’kmaqs have been here for thousands of years – don’t you think we’ve learned something about plants and animals by now?’ And secondly was the way we taught science in general. By separating geology from biology and things like that, we tended to fragment the world into divisions, which was different from the ways the Mi’kmaqs did it.”

The school answered the challenge by introducing an ethnobiology course for Mi’kmaw students in 1995 that looked at the medical uses of local plants. In turn, that led to a four-year integrative sciences program at the university that combined mainstream sciences and aboriginal knowledge. Speakers from other parts of the country were brought in and there was plenty of interest in the program but, for various reasons, particularly mounting staffing problems, the program ground to a halt in 2007.

While all this was going on, the two-eyed seeing model was slowly taking form, as Mi’kmaw students in the ethnobiology program had been talking to Elders in their communities to find out more about the plants they were learning about in their science course.

In the early 2000s, Bartlett won a millennial grant to do some research on a number of fronts, including the collaborative approach to problem-solving that had been introduced earlier by the Mi’kmaw students.

“Albert Marshall came up with the idea for two-eyed seeing, which became the guiding principal,” she said. “Before that, we were referring to it as just a collaboration.”
For Marshall, Murdena’s husband and a respected Elder in Eskasoni First Nation, the two-eyed seeing label just made sense.

“People can grasp that concept easily,” he explained. “I truly and honestly believe that this two-eyed seeing is a concept which is inherent in most aboriginal people because in years gone by when we were hunters and gatherers, it was imperative that we look at everything from another perspective . . . so that you don’t compromise the ecological integrity of the area.”
Marshall was also quick to grasp the wider implications of the two-eyed seeing concept.

“I think especially when it touches upon health, for example, it’s very, very important because I believe to date we have somehow come to the notion that the pharmaceutical companies have a magic pill for us,” he said. “But when you invoke your two-eyed seeing, you know that this is not necessarily the case.

“I’m very hopeful, because the outcome of this research could very well demonstrate that our ways of knowing, our ways of being, are just as relevent now as they were in the past. But since we are now living in two worlds, it is imperative that we come together as one, in which we bring the best from what your culture has brought forth and, in our case, integrate that with the mainstream, so that as we are moving forward on a co-learning journey.”

Tuma Young will be the co-lead on the three-year research program. He’s looking forward to working with Wien and the rest of the research team to determine how two-eyed seeing can be applied to social problems that have plagued Nova Scotia Mi’kmaqs for generations.

“It is very easy to make principles, but without any solid research behind the statements, these can easily become platitudes or ignored by governments,” he explained.

“Our case, our findings, will be presented to the L’nu (Mi’kmaq) policy makers — the chiefs and councils — so they can hopefully use it to develop contemporary social assistance programs that are L’nu-based and directed.

“One of the aspects of being self-governing is having control and direction of our future. This means being responsible for programs that enable L’nu to be self-governing. In this case, if the policy-makers (chiefs and councils) wish to be self-governing in the area of social assistance, this means understanding what it means to have tpi’tnewey (a Mi’kmaw word that translates roughly as distribution or welfare), which is a traditional concept, and how to develop programs under it to reflect contemporary needs.”

The research project is partnering with the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, and Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny, lead chief on the social file for the assembly, will be keeping a close eye on the project over its three-year lifespan.

He’s already familiar with the two-eyed seeing approach, having seen first-hand how incorporating Mi’kmaw traditions, language and sense of community has revitalized Eskasoni’s education system.
“The sad fact is that over 70 per cent of my people are on social assistance,” said Denny. “To find Mi’kmaw ways to address these social conditions may be something that is greatly needed.

“This project ties into the determination of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs leadership to develop and implement our own approach to social policy, and the research project should provide lots of good background information on what that should look like.”

For Bartlett, it’s rewarding to finally see some light at the end of what has been a long and sometimes dark tunnel.

“At the very end, we want to have research-based information to give to the chiefs so that they can have their own Mi’kmaq-made social policies to present to the government — a general policy designed for their own people, by themselves.”

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