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Prestigious research grant will examine the effects of COVID-19 on Old Crow

Developing relationships and ensuring cultural safety are paramount
The Yukon University Campus building in Old Crow photographed Jan. 30. (submitted)

The top tier of health research funding in Canada is finding its way to Yukon’s northernmost community.

The Vuntut Gwitchin Government, along with Yukon University, have been awarded $230,800 by the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). The award will be spent over the next year engaging with the people of Old Crow, listening, talking and storytelling about their experience over the past couple of years amid the difficulties of COVID-19.

“I think that now is a good time to ask community members to look back for a moment so that we can learn from the things we got right and the things we didn’t,” said Bonnee Bingham, a Vuntut Gwitchin councillor.

Local people will be fully involved, co-creating the research plan, participating in group gatherings and having conversations with as many people as possible. The research objective is to learn from the past to help prepare for other similar events. As Bingham says, “This will help us better support each other in the future.”

Dr. Liris Smith of Yukon University, one of the key people involved the study, said “the collection of narratives and stories is really our approach. Sitting down and listening to people; [asking] what was it like the last couple of years living in the community with all the things that happened with COVID-19?”

The CIHR funding program is geared specifically for Indigenous community-led research. Old Crow already has significant experience with participatory research, having conducted climate change research on Old Crow Flats, amongst other projects.

Smith is the Scientific Director at YukonU’s Research Centre, working with the Yukon Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR) unit that is working to create partnerships between people with lived experience and researchers. The SPOR unit provides researchers and patients/communities with tools to conduct co-created health research.

When Smith first learned of the federal funding opportunity, she reached out to the Health Director with Vuntut Gwitchin.

“The next day I was on a call with Chief and Council,” Smith said.

The conversation continued, a partnership was forged and an application was built and submitted. CIHR is extremely competitive with all the top Canadian researchers submitting proposals. The Yukon has never presented a proposal before.

“This was our first opportunity to apply for a grant because our program is new. It [SPOR] started in the fall of 2021,” Smith continued. “We were very fortunate to be accepted for this really highly competitive grant.”

The project will give researchers the opportunity to place themselves within the community and develop shared learnings. The local-led research is intended to benefit the community as well as the academic careers of researchers. It means the findings will be shared with the citizens who contributed to it.

“It really does take time.” Smith said. “We’re going to spend a lot of time in the community before we’re actually gathering interviews.

“Taking the time to build a relationship only makes the research project better… It improves the quality of the information that you have, because you’re getting the full story.”

The research team will consist of a Vuntut Gwitchin Knowledge Keeper, and a YukonU research advisor, according to a YukonU news release. Hired staff will support the project, including a community researcher based in Old Crow. Residents will be compensated for their time and participation.

The elder Knowledge Keeper on the project is Lorraine Netro, who will be guiding the cultural aspects of the research.

“Netro will guide our connections into how we engage with the community,” Smith said.

The other YukonU faculty involved in the project is Dr. Michelle Leach, operations manager, for the SPOR Support Unit. According to their bios on the university’s website, both Smith and Leach are committed to the Yukon for the long term.

The project, which enables the university to connect researchers with communities, will combine Indigenous and Western ways of knowing.

It’s “the idea of the two-eyes-seeing approach where you have both philosophies and both ways of understanding the world and bring that into the research project, which only adds depth and richness to it,” Smith said.

Smith is excited about the project for all involved.

“The data is there — it’s not going to go into an academic institution and disappear.

“It’s meant to be for the First Nation for them to use as is appropriate to support their health and wellness.”

Contact Lawrie Crawford at