Indigenous Elder-in-Residence: A model of co-leadership for the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health

Elder Sheila Nyman

Research is necessary to improve the health and well-being of all people in Canada. But at the same time, we must acknowledge the harm that's been caused by health research, and the ways in which research can be—and has been—weaponized against the communities it's meant to serve, including Indigenous people.

At the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health (IGH), non-Indigenous staff are on a journey of reconciliation to learn (and unlearn) how to engage in research "in a good way", and in good relations.

Embedded learning with Indigenous people is a key part of this journey, consistent with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action and the Tri-Council Policy Statement on the Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS-2) Chapter 9, which concerns research involving the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples.

There are various models for such embedded learning. Through dialogue, IGH has chosen a model of co-leadership between the Scientific Director, Dr. Angela Kaida, and an Indigenous Elder-in-Residence, Elder Sheila Nyman.

Meet the co-leaders of IGH

Introducing Elder Sheila Nyman, IGH Elder-in-Residence (she/they)


Please introduce yourself

My name is Sheila Nyman. I am a Syilx Métis from the Lower Similkameen in the Okanagan Valley. My traditional name from my four times great grandmother is Sal Uni At Kn. That name was brought out and given permission for me to carry from my Great Aunt Doll, who died in the first year of COVID.

She was — just after she turned 102 and she gave permission for me to, and wanted me to carry the name, because she said, "Sheila, you're gone that way". What she meant by that was that I am carrying on the teachings and I'm retrieving the traditional spirituality of our people. I am a Sixties Scoop child, child of the Sixties Scoop.

When I was nine years old, I and my five siblings were taken from our mom, and we all led the lives of people. That's common across Canada, people who were taken in the sixties. So that's part of the legacy of the residential school, how that plays out in my family and my great grandmother was also in residential school. And so I have been taught by an Elder, Many Buffalo Running, and other Elders as well. Traditions, spiritual ways, ceremonies.

And I've been given permission to carry those ceremonies and to do the traditional healing that I've been taught. I have four adult children. I have nine grandchildren and four great grandkids, starting very young. What else do you need to know about me? I took a social work course, not a course — I took the university and social work at the University of Victoria and now hold a master's degree in social work.

So I do clinical social work with First Nations Health Authority in B.C., and I do a lot of research projects and support. Mostly my role is supporting, and I'm there to — if anyone needs counseling or if there's trauma, trauma is my specialty kind of thing, and that's what I do there.

Can you tell us in 60 seconds what is your vision of the future of gender and health research and why it matters?

My vision of gender and health involves including what is known as the Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel is four quadrants: physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. To be a healthy and whole human, we need all of those quadrants to be in balance. So if physically something is not right with us, we need to look at the other three quadrants in order to build that physical part up. Same as if we're emotionally not well, we need to look at the other quadrants that can support and pull up our emotional selves until we're back in balance.

So our health involves not just our bodies, but also our minds. Things that are happening to us, like you can — you would never do trauma work on a person who is living homeless and doesn't have enough food to eat. That's the primary problem that they need to deal with first. They need to find shelter and they need to have food.

They need to feel safe. So that's my vision for the future of health and wellbeing.

Do you have one wish for the future of IGH?

So my one wish would include the Medicine Wheel and also the fact that we are a many gendered species as humans.

We're more than male, more than female. We have many, many genders, and in the time of the old ones, before contact with our people, Indigenous people, we knew there was more than male and more than female. And all of the people, everyone was accepted, everybody held a role in the community. Our Two-Spirit people or transgender, embody both male and female energies.

And then and there's more as well, and how they were viewed and known to be was as a conduit between Earth, and the spirit world. So we had an ability to travel between a great mystery spirit and back into humanness. We could do that communication. So we were like the bridge for the community with the powers of spirit. All my relations.

Introducing Dr. Angela Kaida, IGH Scientific Director (she/her)


Please introduce yourself

Hi, I'm Angela Kaida. I'm the scientific director for the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health. I'm also a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.

Can you tell us in 60 seconds what is your vision of the future of gender and health research and why it matters?

So a vision for the future of gender and health research is really about a calling in.

So our mandate is to conduct research that is of benefit and relevance to women and girls, boys and men, and gender diverse people across Canada and around the world. But the second part of that is around applying what we're learning. Applying what we're learning from this research to improve health and wellness for all.

Do you have one wish for the future of IGH?

So one wish for the future of the Institute is really around expanding our conceptualization of gender, sex, and health, to be inclusive of people who live beyond the binary, to be inclusive of other intersectional factors — parts of our identity, of our social positions, about the ways in which we are experienced and we experience this world, and how these factors, whether that's race and racism, disability, other social determinants of health, how those intersect with our gender and with our sex to shape our health outcomes.

Hear our co-leaders' visions for the future of IGH


Please introduce yourself

Angela Kaida: Hi, my name is Angela Kaida. I'm the scientific director for the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health, and I'm also a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.

Can you tell us in 60 seconds what is your vision of the future of gender and health research and why it matters?

Sheila Nyman: Well, for me, the future of gender and health is, what's important about it is, moving towards acknowledging all the diversities within gender. And my vision for the future is to be inclusive of that in whatever health aspect we're looking at. We're also looking at the person, their gender, and their life experience and who they are. It all makes one package.

Angela Kaida and Sheila Nyman: All my relations. Thanks Elder Sheila. My vision is pretty similar. I think the Institute of Gender and Health and the Canadian health research ecosystem has done an amazing job of funding research that looks at the ways in which sex and gender and their entanglement impact our health. And there's so much more that we stand to learn from those initial steps of research, and that includes expanding our considerations of what is sex and what is gender.

Angela Kaida: Moving us beyond the binary to embrace non-binary, continuous understandings of sex and gender and the ways in which these factors influence our health, as well as adding a dimension of intersectionality. How is it that us and the genders that we occupy, that we identify with, the roles that we play in our society, how we relate with others, what our institutional responsibilities are because of our gender, and how those intersect with other forms of our identity, of our social positions, of our privileges, of our oppressions, and how those come together to shape our health.

Angela Kaida: I think that's a really exciting area of research and areas for learning.

Do you have one wish for the future of IGH?

Sheila Nyman: My wish it would be then, that more is done to include Indigenous people and Indigenous ways of being and knowing into all research, and include Indigenous people, Elders, knowledge holders as equal partners, where you have an Elder who's been around for a really long time and they have traditional teachings and knowledge and experience. That they're seen as equal to the persons with the PhDs, all my relations.

Angela Kaida: Yeah, I mean, one wish for the Institute is I want every health researcher in Canada to see themselves as members of this Institute, in the sense of all of us need to be asking questions in our research about how do sex and gender function to impact the health outcomes that we're interested in. So really, I see it as a calling in of the health research community.

Angela Kaida: And at the same time, because you said one wish, but this is like a 1.5 wish, is that we have a chance ahead of us to deepen our scholarship of how — what are the mechanisms that shape how sex and gender influence our health.

What is an Elder?

In Indigenous culture, an Elder is someone recognized by their community as having attained a high level of understanding of Indigenous history, spirituality, traditional language, cultural teachings, ceremonies and/or healing practices through training and lived and living experiences. Elders are highly respected and may have a range of different roles including mentorship, guidance, governance, decision-making, caretaking, and/or teaching within both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Territory acknowledgement

The CIHR Institute of Gender and Health respectfully acknowledges that we are located on the unceded, traditional and ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people, which includes the territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

The IGH team is grateful to continually learn from Indigenous people. We are committed to addressing the impacts of racist and colonial policies in Canada by supporting health research that strives to overcome inequities, while valuing Indigenous experiences and ways of knowing.

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