Getting to Know Dr. Charlotte Loppie
Interview date: May 17, 2021; Charlotte Loppie and Tara Erb
Location: Online BC NEIHR Information session (webinar)
Dr. Charlotte Loppie is a Professor of Public Health and Social Policy as the University of Victoria (UVic) and NPI of the BC NEIHR (British Columbia Network Environment for Indigenous Health Research), as well as Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Human and Social Development (UVic). Charlotte is a Mi’Kmaq/French Acadian scholar widely recognized for her meaningful engagement with Indigenous communities, supporting research capacity and tackling the health disparities faced by Indigenous peoples.
Thank you, Charlotte, for joining us today.
You’re quite welcome (both laughing)
Charlotte, I was hoping to start with just you telling us a little bit more about what made you want to be a researcher.
Yeah, so I just wanted to start off by saying, isn’t this awkward. Just, Tara has been trying to do an interview with me for months and months and I’ve been putting it off and so then she was like, Oh, we’re just gonna have like a social gathering and talk about the NEIHR and I was like, Sure, let’s do that. It’s just like no- I’m just gonna ask you all those questions that I’ve been trying to ask you for months. So that’s how I got roped into this, although it’s very lovely to see everyone and I’m happy to be here it seems so weird to just be interviewed in front of a bunch of people. And she said people wanted to know the answers to these questions- why anyone would be interested in, I’m not sure but I will answer them.
Yeah, so I never wanted to be a researcher. I was a single mom, with a grade 10 education that got a GED, and then ended up doing undergrad, and, and I liked it. And then someone said, why don’t you do a master’s degree and I was like, okay, and I really liked the research that I got to do. And then someone said, why don’t you do a PhD and I was like, alright, and then I got hooked because a group of Mi’kmaq women that I knew said, why don’t you do your research about us, because they knew I’d like research around menopause. And I was like, okay, and then I got invited to join a group called the Mi’kmaq Health Research Group which was community members and organizational leaders and some folks from Delhousie. I learned a lot about this back in 1998 – I learned a lot about from community about how to do this in a better way- like it was 22 years ago. So it wasn’t perfect (i.e., Indigenous health research)- and it’s still not- but it was better, they were suggesting better ways to do things.
And then I just kind of got hooked and said well I guess I’ll do this for a career. I think I finished my PhD when I was 45. So, and now I’m 46 So… (Laughs). I’m not 46. But yeah and so it was a very happy, collection of like people saying, why don’t you do this and me saying, yeah, okay, let me do that.
You’re always so modest Charlotte. (Laughter)
Just being honest. (Smiles)
I’m sure you’ve had quite a few, but can you share maybe one or two milestone moments or highlights of your research career?
Yeah, I can tell you what stands out for me every time someone asked me this. The group of women that I worked with that- so I have a long standing relationship with the Canadian Aboriginal Aids network- they contacted me back in 1999, they needed sort of a mentor for a couple of Indigenous students that were doing their graduate work. And I said, sure, and then they, we just started working together. At the beginning it was mostly them saying, can you do a workshop for us, can you help with this and I was always happy to help. And then a group of Indigenous women living with HIV approached me and said, no one is telling our story about why we are HIV positive, and how our lives led to this time and we want to tell our own story, and we want you to get the money, and lead the research and I was like okay And so we got the money, and it was called Our Search for Safe Spaces. It was them who wanted to tell the story about how sexual violence had played a role in their lives.
It was a very difficult study, it was really traumatic for most of us, but they wanted that part of their life- their life story told. Once that was completed, they were like, okay, so now we want to tell a story about how we’re well, how we’re healthy, in the context of living with HIV. So they said, get some money. So I got some money, about a million. Got it funded, and it was called Visioning Health. So, Indigenous women living with HIV across the country did research in ceremony with Elders, and they use the arts, whatever arts they wanted. We don’t have time for me to tell you about it right now, but it was the most heartwarming- relational, beautiful experience that I’ve ever had in research, because at the end of the project, even though it was a research project, asking women to talk about you know wellness and culture and gender and – and not about HIV and how hard it is on them. At the end of it, every single woman said, this was healing for me, this was like good medicine for me and it was for all of us. So a research project that was healing for people. You don’t get better than that.
Thanks. So we know research interests, research priorities, and the ways we do research change over time. Just in general can you share how you think Indigenous health research has changed over the years?
It’s changed immensely. I mean there are some elements of it, like people who don’t have good intentions, people who are just building a career on the backs of whoever- that in some case hasn’t changed, you know, they exploit other people, right. So there are still people who are getting into the business of research, to build a career for themselves and they’re focused on themselves.
But as a general sort of research enterprise when I started in the ’90s, there were- I had no mentors. There was nobody talking about Indigenous research as like a ‘field of research’, as a methodology, until Linda Smith wrote that book in ’99. But you know, then the CIHR was created, and they created a an Institute for Indigenous or Aboriginal People’s Health. That was Jeff Reading, the guy I used to be married to- we’re still friends. But he fought for an Institute for Aboriginal people, because nobody wanted one. Trust me. And that changed the landscape, at least for health research in Canada for Indigenous peoples. Do we have a long way left to go? Will I be alive? I’m 62. Will I be alive to see it? No, but you folks might. Some of your kids or grandkids might see a time when Indigenous communities collectives, organizations are leading research. That we have data banks, bio-banks, research centers all across the country- that research is completely self determined.
I like I said, it’s changed a lot, but we have a long way to go, and so that’s why I like to see some young fresh faces in the crowd here. Not that everybody doesn’t look great, but some of you aren’t that young and, like me. And so, I’m just counting on all of you to pick up the bundle and keep moving with it.
And that’s a perfect segue. So thinking of where Indigenous health research has been, where it is now, and the future of it- you’ve said a couple of the things like bio-banks and our own data centers- do you want to touch a bit, go a bit more in-depth into that how you envision Indigenous health research in the future, as well tie in how the BC NEIHR fits into that?
The BC NEIHR- just so folks who don’t know anything about it- is one of nine centers across the country that are funded to support Indigenous students through scholarships and fellowships, fund Indigenous communities, collectives, organizations to do their own research, or to create opportunities for them to partner to develop their own research, to lead their own research, to share their own research. Then we have a bunch of things we call capacity bridging programs, not “development”, because Indigenous communities have tons of capacities right? Tons. It’s just that some folks haven’t worked in the area of research. So we ‘bridge’ the capacities people already have to the research context, right? I think it’s a bit disrespectful not to acknowledge that communities have lots of capacities and we have lots to learn from those communities. So, that’s our job. And so we’re starting that work, we’re developing that work, we’re trying to focus on cultural safety within research or anti-racism within research because the research enterprise can be very racist right? Like funding organizations that won’t allow communities to hold funds. You know, peer reviewers that look at grant applications and don’t know anything about Indigenous people or they have some racist ideas about Indigenous people. They don’t value Indigenous research. They don’t value the way we do research. Then there’s the research ethics boards, who also don’t know much. And so we’re trying to look at that all- and at researchers in general- but we’re trying to look at each of those environments and say, where can we intervene? As like as a network, as an organization, to clear the path so that Indigenous researchers don’t get harmed when they’re trying to do their work, and how can we lift or help to support Indigenous communities collectives, and organizations so that they can be self determining in the research enterprise? So they don’t always feel like, Oh, we’re just like an add on or people are just trying to partner with us to get something for themselves.
Right, and so I feel like networks, like the BC NEIHR- but there are others, and I hope that there will be many others- we say everything is health, but you know the social sciences, the physical sciences genome BC, there’s a lot of research enterprises out there that are still at like the year 1980 or something, are still like Indigenous research? What’s that? Why would we even think about Indigenous people- partnering with Indigenous people? or why that’s valuable?
So I think that one of the things that this network can do is a) all the stuff I just said, but b) maybe represent like a model or a template for other kinds of supports, networks- whatever we want to call it- in lots of different areas where we’re researching or searching for the answers to questions, searching for the most useful way to do things. Ways to benefit community. Right? There’s lots and lots of ways that we can do that, and we’re just like one little, little area.
Just a little pause, we do have with us today also Stephanie Day who does a lot of work with the NEIHR. And I thought Steph, if you could just also add to that question of how your role, what you’re doing in the NEIHR, how that is impacting the landscape of Indigenous Health Research?
Yeah, sure. Hi, it’s really nice to see everyone here today, as Tara said my name is Steph Day from Haudenosaunee from Oneida Nation of the Thames and my mom’s side, and English and German on my dad’s side of the family. I am really grateful visitor here on the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ territories. So I work with the NEIHR as a community research liaison. Currently just in our first year of doing that, my goal has been to try to build as many relationships with Indigenous communities, collectives and organizations in BC as possible, get the word out there as to who we are and what we can do. And really, my role (and then the role of hopefully future Indigenous research facilitators within the NEIHR) will be to help with our own funding applications for Indigenous communities. So for the funds to go directly to communities to do the health research that they want to do. I can help with, you know the application process of that, or budgeting, or all those kind of things. I work with Tara, quite often in terms of making learning modules for topics that communities identify as helpful for them in their own research. Really, as Charlotte spoke to the capacity bridging, I’m kind of- I can serve as a little bridge. As in, okay you’re wanting some support in this area, let’s bridge some of the existing knowledge in that or what other communities have done that have been really helpful for particular health research areas you’re exploring. So that’s just a little snapshot into who I am and what I do, and it’s been a joy to work with the BC NEIHR so far.
Thanks, Steph. And if you visit our website there’s a little bio on Steph, as well as contact information if anyone wants to reach out to and connect with staff. So Charlotte I just have one last question, because I recently had a conversation with a representative from an Indigenous organization in BC, and one of the first questions they asked me, I thought you could elaborate on. You touched on that already a little bit. Currently, what are the discussions around how to support ICCOs (Indigenous communities, collectives and organizations) becoming independent leaders of their own research, and exactly how does that look like right now on the provincial and national scene? So, where is it at and what are people actually doing about that?
Yeah, so for those folks that aren’t familiar, most health research- but not all of it- is funded through the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). There’s three big funding organizations for research in Canada, one does the social sciences and humanities, one does all the physical like chemistry and engineering and biology and all that, and then CIHR is the health research – a collective of Institutes. The three together are called the Tri-Council. Only people who work at a what they call ‘eligible institution’, which means a hospital or a research center or a university, can hold the funds from those centers. Right, we can imagine that hamstrings communities a lot because then they are like beholden to whoever’s holding the money, right? You know, the person with the money usually has some power to make decisions. Well, we want to make sure that communities do have the power right? OCAP is about ownership, control, access and possession- so we feel like that has to relate to funds as well. So you can become an eligible institution, but it takes a really long time, like a year, and you have to go through tons of paperwork. I mentioned earlier, the Canadian Aboriginal Aids network, they are a large national network of AIDS Aboriginal Aid service organizations. And so, they applied, they went through the process, and they are now eligible to hold CIHR funds. So it’s doable. The great thing about the Institute for Indigenous Peoples Health (IIPH) is that it’s led by a amazing woman named Carrie Bourassa- an Indigenous woman- and she has made it her mission to support communities to become eligible. And one of the things that the NEIHR wants to do as well is we want to support people. So people like Stephanie, Tara, me, our whole operation, we can be helpful for those communities or collectives that want to become eligible hold their own funds. The other thing is that if you have a good relationship with a researcher, you can always arrange to have- you know, and we do this all the time- the researcher can get the money, right, and then they just block transfer to the community. There’s nothing saying that they can’t do that. So there are other ways if you don’t want to go through all the rigmarole of going through the process there. You know, that’s the thing about relationships, is if you have a good trusting relationship with researchers, there should be no reason why they can’t just transfer the funds over to communities and let communities take the lead in that way.
For more information about the BC NEIHR visit: www.uvic.ca/bcneihr or email: firstname.lastname@example.org