Ambtman-Smith and Vanloffeld named as Trudeau Foundation Scholars

May 27, 2019

Vanessa Ambtman-Smith and Steven Vanloffeld, Trudeau Foundation recipients

Two PhD students in the Department of Geography have been invited to be part of a national leadership and mentorship network.

Vanessa Ambtman-Smith and Steven Vanloffeld are both PhD students in the Department of Geography, working with Chantelle Richmond. The are among 20-scholars from across Canada awarded Doctoral Scholarships from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

This is the first time when two scholars from the same institution and working with the same supervisor have been awarded the scholarship.

The Scholarships award students who are “engaged leaders who are conscious of the impact of their research, connected to the realities of the communities in which they work, and open to non-conventional forms of knowledge.”

Ambtman-Smith and Vanloffeld are focused on community-engaged research, connected to Indigenous communities. Ambtman-Smith identifies as Métis-Cree. Vanloffeld is a member of the Chippewas of Saugeen.

“Despite the very different environments Vanessa and Steven are working in, they are both driven by a deep moral imperative that places their community partner’s needs at the very centre of the research,” said Richmond.

Ambtman-Smith is focusing on how Canada’s health care system can work to rebuild trust amongst the Indigenous population.

Vanloffeld is documenting the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process unfolding in the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, as the Chippewas of Saugeen and the Chippewas of Nawash consider accepting a proposal for two deep geological repositories to house different levels of nuclear waste, in their traditional territory.

FPIC gives Indigenous peoples the right to give or withhold consent on all matters affecting their territories. The principle was defined under the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Vanloffeld will be engaging and working with the Chippewas of Saugeen, his home community, as they undertake the process. This includes extensive knowledge translation to ensure community members understand the science of the matter, before they make a decision via a community referendum.

Vanloffeld is documenting the process to prepare lessons for other First Nations, for industry, and for the Government of Canada, for consideration for future FPIC processes.

“The government has signed the UNDRIP, but what does this mean?” asked Vanloffeld. “This is a test-case. The government is taking a wait and see approach to see how the community approaches it.”

Vanloffeld brings personal and professional experience to the research. Before starting his PhD studies, Vanloffeld served on the Saugeen First Nation council.

“Serving on council, I sat on the nuclear file, and saw, from a different perspective, the amount of work that goes into ensuring this is a good process,” said Vanloffeld. “I saw the magnitude that this process will have on current generations, on future generations, and around Canada.”

Through the consent process, Indigenous communities hope to re-establish the pattern of development. Vanloffeld explains that in the past, companies and industries would move into an area, exploit the territory and leave, leaving behind environmentally degradation.

“All development happens within Indigenous territory. Typically we have had impact benefit agreements, but these don’t meet the needs of the community,” said Vanloffeld. “The hope is that lessons learned here will inform and guide negotiations that lead to beneficial agreements between communities and industry.”

“Most Indigenous communities aren’t against development, they just want to benefit from development, but there has been a history of exclusion,” said Vanloffeld. “Finally they have a say in to whether it will go ahead.”

Community engagement and involvement is a defining feature of Vanloffeld’s research.

“I’m doing the research, but ultimately it’s the community’s project. I’m documenting, preserving, and learning from their significant efforts,” said Vanloffeld. “I’m a community member and will participate in the vote, but it’s an honour to document the process for current and future generations to learn from.”

Vanessa Ambtman-Smith is researching the impact of new approaches to health, as health care providers engage and integrate Indigenous approaches to health.

Through Canadian history, Indigenous people were mistreated in hospitals, as they were forcibly segregated from their own communities, or from others in the hospital. Others were unwitting subjects of medical experiments.

Even though the overall health of Indigenous peoples is generally considered to be worse, they in general are less likely to enter a hospital and under-utilize health care. This is true even when accounting for geographic access. Even Indigenous people in urban areas have lower rates of hospitals and health care use.

This has profound impacts on health, including higher infant mortality rates for Indigenous people, regardless of where they are located.

“It’s no wonder there are Indigenous people across Canada who don’t trust hospitals,” said Ambtman-Smith. Included in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a call to action to support the use of traditional medicine in health care.

In response to the TRC recommendations, some hospitals and health care providers are creating spaces or additional supports to meet the physical, spiritual, emotional and mental needs of Indigenous patients. One example of this, which Ambtman-Smith is focusing on, is a sweat lodge built by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the first in Ontario to exist in a hospital space. Ambtman-Smith will consider the impact of these approaches.

“No one has done an evaluation to see if these spaces are meeting their intended needs, and whether they are true acts of reconciliation,” said Ambtman-Smith. “I hope to learn from the case-study, and understand from an Indigenous perspective what these spaces mean for health and healing.”

Ambtman-Smith’s research builds upon the work of previous Indigenous health researchers, who have shown that rates of access is more closely connected with the harm associated with health care spaces than with geographic access to these spaces.

“Is it possible to privilege Indigenous approach and see changes?” Ambtman-Smith asked. “I’m interested to see if you change the physical space does that change the outcomes.”

For Ambtman-Smith, community engagement is more than a buzz-word; it provides a very different structure and framework for her research.

“Indigenous research takes a lot more time up front, as you work to build relationships and accountability to collaborators, and work on what the research outcomes might be,” said Ambtman-Smith. “The first interactions with partners and communities is to determine how a researcher can support them. This is a real divergence from the standard research approach.”

Ambtman-Smith hopes her involvement in the mentorship program will help restore the rights of Indigenous people in academic, leadership and health care institutions.

The Trudeau Foundation scholarship provides financial support during the research process, but also aims to create mentorship and support networks for emerging researchers. This includes leadership training, connections with the foundation’s Mentors and Fellows, and language training, including support for Indigenous scholars to learn their traditional language.

For Ambtman-Smith, the experience and involvement with a network and community will be most rewarding. “There is a group of diverse recipients and you get to see how your idea and work can grow,” said Ambtman-Smith.

“To get the call saying you’ve been chosen as a scholar is humbling,” said Vanloffeld. “I did the work, but I wouldn’t be here without the support of my supervisor, the faculty, the department and the wider institution.”

Both scholars are completing their PhD under the supervision of Chantelle Richmond, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health and Environment and Associate Professor, Department of Geography.

“In our group, we do research with communities on the issues that matter most to them, ideally to enable communities with the resources required to be healthy and self-determining,” said Richmond. “To me, what’s most exciting about these awards is the recognition that this model of Indigenous research is relevant not only in our field, but for Canada as a whole.”

“It’s an honour to be able to share this honour with someone else, and with someone else who is working toward the same goal of centring Indigenous identity in the academic world,” said Ambtman-Smith.


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