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Remembering people in research: The Cedar Project and residential school trauma

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On February 23, 2016, open dialogue was interspersed with poignant stories in a half-day forum on conducting Indigenous research. The event was part of the UBC Centennial Emerging Research Workshop on Ethics and Pragmatism in Indigenous Research, a two-day workshop organized by the UBC Office of the Vice President Research and International. Cedar Project investigators, study coordinators, and partners shared study results and best practices from the community-based research initiative.

The Cedar Project explores the relationship between colonization, residential schools, and intergenerational trauma and vulnerability to HIV and hepatitis C infection among young Indigenous people in B.C. There are approximately 800 participants between the ages of 14 and 30 who use non-injection and injection drugs enrolled in the Cedar Project, which started in 2003.

From left, Christina Tom, study participant; Vicky Thomas, project coordinator; and Chief Wayne Christian, co-principal investigator of the Cedar Project. Image credit: Jeff Bassett, Sproing Creative.

The morning opened with a welcome to the territory by Musqueam Elder Larry Grant, and a prayer by Kukpi7 Wayne Christian of the Splatsin Secwepemc Nation. Chief Christian is Co-Principal Investigator of the Cedar Project, along with CHÉOS Scientists Drs. Patricia Spittal and Martin Schechter.

“I cannot separate who I am and where I am from, from what I talk about today,” said Dr. Nadine Caron, Co-Director of the UBC Centre for Excellence in Indigenous Health and an Anishnawbe woman from the Sagamok First Nation, in her keynote address. Dr. Caron emphasized the importance of including First Nations communities in the research process.

The crowd was brought to tears at multiple points throughout the day as presenters interspersed discussion of Cedar Project findings with personal stories of family and friends experiencing trauma, abuse, or the lasting impacts of residential schools.

A powerful image that represents the 56 Cedar Project participants who have passed away during the course of the study.

“The pain of our children is the pain of ourselves,” said Chief Christian.

Attendees heard about the origins of the project and key findings, including 2015 results that found that women who had a parent who attended a residential school were 2.35 times more likely to be sexually assaulted. Women were also nearly ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted later in life if they had a history of childhood sexual abuse.

“How do we breathe life into these statistics?” asked Mary Teegee, a member of the Takla Lake First Nation and Executive Director of Family Services for Carrier Sekani Family Services in Prince George.

Cedar Project Coordinator Vicky Thomas of the Wuikinuxv Nation discussed culturally sensitive approaches to research, highlighting how the Cedar team strives to create an environment of cultural safety at their research offices. This includes acknowledging grief and building on strength, providing supports for food security and housing, serving traditional food, and providing a safe setting without judgment.

The study is unique in that it is governed by the Cedar Project Partnership, an independent body of Indigenous leaders, AIDS service organizations, and health service providers who direct the entire research process, from research ethics and study design to formulation of conceptual frameworks and knowledge translation.