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September 2022

Indigenous ways of knowing: the path to mental wellness

At a glance
The team

In partnership with Mental Health Research Canada, Master of Nursing student Nikki Hunter-Porter is working with Dr. Lisa Bourque Bearskin, CIHR Indigenous Health Research Chair in Nursing and Associate Professor at Thompson Rivers University, to address gaps in Indigenous mental health services

The challenge

The lack of Indigenous-specific mental health resources is a major contributor to Indigenous people being disproportionately affected by mental health challenges

The solution

By harnessing an Indigenous approach to research to evaluate Indigenous mental wellness services, this study aims to determine the systemic factors impacting access and delivery of these services

The outcome

While the research is ongoing, Hunter-Porter’s project has received additional Mitacs funding, extending it to two internships and a full year of research

Throughout Canada, stark disparities exist when it comes to accessing mental health services and resources, especially within Indigenous communities. To close the gap, we must examine these issues through a decidedly placed Indigenous lens.

There are significant mental health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada, largely due to a legacy of colonization. Though Indigenous health is legally a federal responsibility, mental health services vary dramatically between provinces and territories. While the Government of British Columbia recently committed to investing $4.2 million to meet the growing need for mental health care and services, particularly in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities, a Master of Nursing student at Thompson Rivers University is using her expertise and lived experience in applying Indigenous methodology to identify the challenges Indigenous communities face in accessing mental health resources, beginning with Secwépemc Nation. 

A proud member of St’uxwtéws Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia, Nikki Hunter-Porter has already worked in eight different First Nations communities to address mental wellness gaps that persist throughout her home province of British Columbia. As a second-generation residential school and 60s Scoop survivor, Hunter-Porter is committed to creating change and lasting improvements that will benefit future generations. And she knows that the best way to achieve that is by grounding her research in Indigenous ways of knowing. 

An Indigenous, community-based approach 

Through talking circles and focused conversations, with the support of Dr. Lisa Bourque Bearskin, CIHR Indigenous Health Research Chair in Nursing and Associate Professor at Thompson Rivers University, Hunter-Porter is leaning into an Indigenous methodology that is community-based and culturally mindful to collect data and survey mental health workers and participants in Secwépemc Nation. 

“This research is grounded in the strengths of St’uxwtéws and First Nations People while acknowledging the barriers and challenges that exist within the mental healthcare systems and structures,” explains Hunter-Porter. “Indigenous research methodologies will be used as an overarching framework to embed Indigenous thinkers, voices, knowledge, cultural practices, protocols, and concerns in every step of the research process.” 

Rooted in stseptékwlls, the traditional oral teachings and stories of Sepwépemc that have been passed down through generations, Hunter-Porter knows how critical it is to centre her work in local values, knowledge, and traditions for the people of Sepwépemc Nation and beyond to benefit from it. 

“Through this research process, I’ve been able to reconnect with my home community, learn about my family’s history and traditional knowledge systems, and understand how important it is to protect our knowledge as Secwépemc Peoples,” explains Hunter-Porter. “This is how we continue to build upon and protect our traditional Indigenous knowledge and support our people in their health and wellness journeys.” 

Leading with the heart 

Although highly necessary research of this kind remains chronically underfunded, the insight and knowledge Hunter-Porter demonstrated in her funding submission stood out. So much so, that she was asked to submit for a second round of funds. 

“Seeing the proposal for this project was just unbelievable,” says Candice Loring, Senior Advisor, Indigenous Relations and Initiatives at Mitacs. “We made the decision to award the project two rounds of funding, the most generous offering in the history of Mitacs.” 

“We know there is a mental health crisis, so we really wanted to highlight the role of Indigenous nurse-led research and its potential impact,” explains Bourque Bearskin, adding that she’s never had a graduate student with an ability to organize ideas the way Hunter-Porter has done this early in the program. 

While Hunter-Porter’s research is ongoing, its potential for yielding positive mental health outcomes for her community and beyond runs deep. 

“What Nikki is doing is taking the voices of all the Indigenous people in her community, weaving those voices together, and creating a platform for better awareness and policy in how we approach Indigenous mental health,” expresses Loring. “It matters so much to have people like Nikki working in these places, people who don’t come to this from a place of sympathy and pity, but from a true place of understanding and leading with the heart.”


Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country. 

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: BD@mitacs.ca.