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This is Who I Am: Aboriginal Women’s Healing from Criminalization and Problematic Drug Use

This is Who I Am: Aboriginal Women’s Healing from
Criminalization and Problematic Drug Use
Colleen Anne Dell, Valerie Desjarlais, and Jennifer M. Kilty
Illicit drug use amongst criminalized Aboriginal women is a serious health concern in
Canada. Little is understood about how women’s healing is impacted by their views of
themselves as, and the stigma associated with being, a drug user, involved in crime and an
Aboriginal woman in Canadian society. In this article we address two ways in which
women’s often silenced voices have uniquely guided a national research project: (1)
experiential knowledge as methodology, and (2) experiential knowledge in knowledge
translation. To engage with such a methodology we must begin by re-centring the voices
and experiences of Aboriginal women. To do this we draw on the life history narrative
provided by team member and former prisoner Valerie Desjarlais, who shares her story of
healing from criminalization and problematic drug use throughout this article. Story sharing
was identified as an important part of the women’s healing journeys and understanding of
who they are. For example, Desjarlais writes:
For myself, I found that alcohol and popping pills medicated the aches and pains of
internal suffering. As a result of my addictions I became an inmate in both the
provincial and federal system. The type of alcohol and drug treatment I received for
my alcoholism and pill popping would not be received in any particular treatment
centre. It would be a treatment centre director that would direct my path to finding
the key that held me prisoner in my own world. It is through this direction that led
me to find sobriety for what it really is and to find myself and be proud of who I am
and how I choose to live my life.
– Valerie Desjarlais, 2006
We draw on Valerie’s story throughout this article as a way to situate her experiential reality
as knowledge and as a way to ground the next stage of our research process – knowledge
translation. To translate this knowledge to a wider audience we collaborated with Aboriginal
singer/songwriter Violet Naytowhow to develop a song based on our initial research
findings specific to identity, stigma and healing.
The problematic use of drugs amongst Aboriginal women is a serious health concern in
Canada. According to the 2002–2003 First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey,
although the documented rate of past year illicit drug use is low (7.3 percent) among First
Nations (9.3 percent for men, 5.3 percent for women), it is still more than double the rate of
the general Canadian population (3.0 percent) (First Nations Centre, 2005, p. 116).
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Aboriginal women also make up a disproportionate percentage of Canada’s injection drug
use (IDU) population, and IDU is a key mode of Hepatitis C and human immunodeficiency
virus (HIV) transmission (Barlow, 2003; Craib et al., 2003). Between 1998 and 2003, 66.9
percent of all HIV-positive tests among Aboriginal women were attributable to IDU (Public
Health Agency of Canada, 2004). Aboriginal women, including First Nations, are also over-
represented in Canada’s criminal justice system, including incarceration at the federal and
provincial levels (Balfour and Comack, 2006; Dell, 2001a). Incarceration itself is a well-
documented health risk (e.g. inadequate care) (Arbour, 1996; Kilty, 2008). In 2006,
Aboriginal women made up 31 percent of the federal prison population (Correctional
Service Canada, 2006, p. 12), while Aboriginal peoples represent approximately 3.3 percent
of Canada’s total population (Statistics Canada, 2003).
Little is understood about how women’s healing from problematic drug use is impacted by
their views of themselves as, and the multiple stigmas associated with being, Aboriginal,
criminalized, and a drug user. Current research evidence suggests that the effects of
competing role expectations and stigma are harmful, though minimal research exists in the
substance abuse (Link et al., 1997; Ridlon, 1988) and criminal justice fields (van Olphen et
al., 2009), particularly research that is specific to Aboriginal women and the gendered
function of colonialism (Carter, 1997; Scott, 1992). In 2005, our team was awarded a
Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant to examine the role of stigma and
identity in the healing journeys of criminalized Aboriginal women from illicit drug use.
Interviews were conducted with 65 First Nations, Métis and Inuit women in treatment for
illicit drug abuse at 6 National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP)
treatment centres across Canada, and 20 women who completed treatment. The majority of
individuals interviewed were of First Nations descent.
Our team’s collaborative, multi-year project was spearheaded by the National Native
Addictions Partnership Foundation, which steers the First Nations and Inuit addictions
system in Canada towards holistic, culturally-relevant seamless addictions services, the
Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse – Canada’s national, non-governmental addictions
agency, and Carleton University. The University of Saskatchewan joined as a principal
investigator in 2007. We compiled a research team and advisory group that represented a
diversity of experiences as well as expertise. It is this diversity and recognition of
everyone’s equitable contributions that has been the mainstay of our project. Members of
our team include Aboriginal treatment providers, First Nations women who have been in
drug treatment and/or prison, treatment centre directors, Aboriginal Elders, academic
researchers, community agencies working with criminalized Aboriginal women, as well as
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal research assistants. We also have three expert mentors to
provide advice to our team in specialized areas, including traditional Aboriginal healing,
drug treatment and rehabilitation. From its inception and through each stage of the research,
community involvement and partnership founded and directed our project.
To work toward achieving our team’s goal of contributing original knowledge to the
treatment field, we grounded our project in a community-based participatory approach to
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research – research that produces knowledge with rather than on marginalized community
members (Stoecker, 2003; Flicker et al., 2006, Aboriginal methodologies that serve
Aboriginal interests (Gilchrist, 1997; Schnarch, 2004) and feminist methodologies that
privilege women’s experiences (Kirby and McKenna, 1989; Pederson, 2002), as well as
adherence to the OCAP principles (ownership, control, access, possession) and the CIHR
Guidelines for Health Research Involving Aboriginal People (Schnarch, 2004; CIHR, 2007).
Central to our team’s work with the women we interviewed, as well as each other, was
understanding and respecting that no one form of knowledge was privileged over another
(e.g. academic versus lived experience).
Our method of research differs from a conventional Western scientific approach to
understanding. Our team is committed to doing research that has been identified by others as
being done ‘by, for and with’ women in drug treatment and not ‘on’ them (Kirby and
McKenna, 1989; Fitzgerald, 2004). We have extended this concept to include doing research
in balance with the community. Our inclusion of Aboriginal women’s experiential voices
challenges the Western scientific method as being the only way to produce empirical
knowledge. Contrary to our work, Western science does not typically accept people’s
everyday experiences as valid ‘knowledge’ (Tickner, 2005). Similarly, it does not generally
work in collaboration with the holders of such knowledge (Smith, 1999). Respect for
multiple voices and experiences is foundational to our project. Our team came to its
understanding of respect over time, by working together and with the guidance of two
Aboriginal Elders.
We designed our study with the intent to respect the rights, beliefs and values of everyone
involved, including criminalized Aboriginal women who had abused drugs. For example, we
began our project by documenting the personal healing journeys of three women on our
research team. Alongside the academic literature, their healing journeys informed our
research in multiple ways, from directing our research focus to the content of our interview
schedule and storytelling guide. For example, through Valerie’s own desire to heal the
wounds that kept her silent as a young woman and mother, she brought her life experiences,
education and professional understandings to the research project. Valerie’s story advanced
our team’s understanding of Aboriginal women’s healing in several key areas not identified
in the extant literature, including explaining the significance and meaning of community,
along with the central role of hope in individual healing. One of the overarching themes in
Valerie’s story is the impact of stigma on self-identification and thus on the generation of
competing identities. The following is some of what Valerie shared:
I always thought belonging to a specific group of people is what identity meant. I
grew up near a little village called Lestock, Saskatchewan. My late mother was a
treaty Indian up until she married my dad whom was considered non-status and as a
result she lost her status. In early elementary years, some of the Indian kids at
school would say, “my mom or dad said your nothing but a ‘damn half-breed’”. On
the other hand, some of the little white kids would say “you’re an Indian” and I
would go home and cry to my kokum asking her “What does that mean?” I
remember her hugging me and saying “you’re like me, you’re an Indian, never
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mind what they say”. But, on Treaty Days (five dollar day), I would watch all my
Indian relatives line-up and get their five dollars; as young as I was, I felt ‘different
and ashamed’ because I didn’t know ‘who I was or what I was’.
It was difficult to figure out what I was or where I belonged because a lot of the
times I lived on the reserve with my grandparents. Then, in the winter times we
always moved to live with my mom on the Métis farm, off the reserve. To get to
school, we rode the bus with the white kids and to think back, I liked that. It made
me feel white, I guess – superiority over my own race of people.
Incarceration of Body, Mind and Spirit
As a result of my stealing and lying, I ended up at Pine Grove Correctional Centre
for many charges of Break and Enter, wilful damage and theft. While in there, I
met an old school friend and she seemed ‘solid and right on’. There was this mental
projection that I had to become ‘tough and solid’, meaning I can take all that is
dished out to me and would stay true to my friends. My friend introduced me to
pills and weed, and by the time my four months of a six-month sentence was up, I
knew what ailments to describe to the doctor to get valium or Ts & Rs.
When I came back home, I started introducing my own relatives to what I learned
could be a cheap and quick way to get ‘stoned’. I soon ended-up in jail again for
forty-five days. The social worker in Pine Grove said I was a chronic alcoholic and
I should look at treatment. I used his prognosis of me to my advantage, a scam to
get out early. I agreed to go to the Native Alcohol Centre in Regina a few weeks
before I was actually to be released. It would be the first time I met my Elder
sponsor because he was the Treatment Director of that centre. Anyway, I lasted a
few days in that place and took off back to home in Lestock.
The same cyclic pattern occurred again, this time I committed a more serious
offense of robbery with violence – I got nine months. This would be the last time I
would be in Pine Grove. While serving this sentence I escaped custody twice in
which one of those escapes we over-powered the guards. The sentence from the
courts ran consecutive to the current sentence I was serving at that time and I ended
up with three years. I was eighteen years old and was being sent to the ‘pen’. I was
scared, but I didn’t show it.
Three months from the time I was sent to Kingston Prison for Women (P4W) I had
open-heart surgery. The women serving life befriended me and really took the time
to talk to me about trying to change my life. One of the women told me “even if
you feel no one gives a shit about you, you got to learn to start caring for yourself”
and “if no one believes in you, you got to learn to believe in yourself, this is not the
place for you”.
That longing I felt to once again feel loved and safe started surfacing, only this time
the lifers were becoming my family, they gave me that sense that I was no longer
alone. Their words and caring tones reminded me so much of my Kokum. I was at
Kingston for nine months when I won my appeal and got time served on my
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sentence. I was so scared to leave the penitentiary. I already knew what was going
to happen. But, I got put on the train and headed back – how I dreaded that trip.
Sure enough the same cyclic addictive pattern started occurring. I was drinking,
popping pills, smoking up and trying to crank up. I felt hopeless and helpless, like I
couldn’t cope any longer. So once again, I deliberately took all my pills and ended-
up in the psych ward in Regina Hospital. I felt I belonged there, because I actually
felt I was going crazy insane. I spent about three weeks there and was discharged
with nowhere to go and no one to go to. They told me I was suffering from
I stayed in Regina with a friend of mine from the reserve and slowed down on the
drinking for a while, but continued to pop pills. One weekend we partied all
weekend long, quite a few of us. It was on a Sunday evening when I got the news
that one of my friends I was partying with passed away from a drug overdose. I
remember going into shock and couldn’t believe it. She had two little kids and it
was they who found her. As I was being told this, I had this mental image of those
kids finding their mom, and how devastating and traumatizing it must’ve been.
I went to the wake and funeral, and seeing those little kids tear stained faces stirred
something in my heart. I remember thinking, here was a mother who loved her
children very much, and now they’ve been robbed of that love because of alcohol
and drugs. For some reason after that I just quit taking pills, but kept on with the
alcohol and smoking weed. I end up leaving for Alberta with the thought in my
head, that maybe I could make things different over there. But things never
changed. I end up in my first common-law relationship with a guy who loved
booze, women and loved to abuse. After the third beating in a year, I headed back
to Lestock.
When I was twenty-one, I got into a car accident with my cousin. Of course we
were drunk and I started popping pills again, so we were both stoned when we hit
the grader on a grid. I was going to court for Impaired Driving and met an older
guy who was the native court-worker at that time. I received fine option and started
to do some work for this guy. Little did I know he would become my husband and
we’d have two kids together. Anyway, he was in A.A. and used to ask me to go
along with him to some A.A. meetings – sure why not. The meetings weren’t my
interest, he was. So I would go, just to try and snag him – he kind of reminded me
of my ex in Alberta and I know now that was a rebound thing. We ended up living
common law five months after we met.
Well, trying to sober up for him didn’t work, because I always ended up drinking
and I would try to fight him. Whenever I felt he gave up on me, I would crumble
like hell for him to take me back. I was really desperate for intimacy, to feel close
to someone again. When I found out I was pregnant, I was so happy because now I
was going to have someone to love me. But, I ended up drinking again during my
pregnancy. After my first daughter was born, eleven months later I gave birth to
another daughter. I really tried to sober up, but I battled with it and used every
excuse in the book to cling to a lifestyle I had become conditioned to. This pattern
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became a cycle for about six years, but each time the length of time I stayed sober
and straight was longer and longer. The longest was eighteen months before I
relapsed and went out for my last drink.
Our team’s initial introduction into knowledge translation was featured in the CIHR Institute
of Health Services and Policy Research Publication, Evidence in Action, Acting on
Evidence: A Casebook of Health Services and Policy Research Knowledge Translation
Stories. In our article, “Responding from Within: Women and Self-Harm” (Dell et al., 2006,
p. 33) we commented that our research approach “resulted in a holistic appreciation of the
issue and sparked a series of partnered research initiatives with multi-sector involvement.
Working in a team founded on diversity and committed to shared decision making was
challenging but ultimately positive, and has led to ongoing research and knowledge
translation activities”. This continues to hold true today within our team’s approach to
sharing our research findings. Our team has a steadfast commitment, and we would identify
a responsibility, to share the outcomes of our project so that others can benefit from it. As
Ho et al. (2004, p. 70) note, “[n]on-incorporation of the knowledge generated by research
into mainstream health practices greatly diminishes its value”. The key question for our
team was how to do this while honouring and respecting women’s experiential voices.
Our team held a gathering in February 2009 to develop a song based on the key overarching
findings of our study in relation to stigma, identity and healing. Our team collaborated with
Woodland Cree singer/songwriter and Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards nominee, Violet
Naytowhow. Approximately 30 individuals attended the gathering, including government
and non-government decision makers, women we interviewed, researchers, treatment
providers and Elders. Our goal was to collaboratively create a song portraying the healing
experiences of Aboriginal women who have struggled with criminalization and drug abuse.
We chose the unique form of song creation because of its neutrality among all of our team
attendees (e.g. none are song writers).
Violet’s introduction to song writing with the group was analogous to story writing – with
an introduction, body and conclusion. Our team focussed on the importance of drafting an
ending that leaves the listener with an inspiring and forward moving message. Our team also
listened to several different genres of songs to give us ideas of melody. The song writing
process involved our team being divided into four groups to brainstorm three separate lyrics
for the song (i.e., introduction, middle and ending). The fourth group focused on the bridge/
chorus. Each group was facilitated by an individual familiar with the song writing process:
Violet Naytowhow, Talla Tootoosis, Jonothon Couchman and Douglas Purcell. Lyrics were
constructed based on the themes from data analysis summary reports produced prior by the
team, alongside individual’s contributions from their own experiences.
After the individual groups composed their lyrics, they met together with Violet to review
and work on the combined set of lyrics. The group also discussed different ways to frame
the song. For example, having the song begin with drumming and an Elder speaking, and
ending it with children’s laughter. Following the conclusion of our gathering, Violet and
guitarist Kevin Joseph worked with the song for the next several weeks to add a melody.
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The draft of the song was distributed to all team members, including those not able to attend
the gathering, for feedback prior to it being officially released in May 2009. The song is
available at
I survived through the pain
Many emotions like waves
Laughing and crying again and again
Honesty, strength, friends and devotion
Showering gifts of hope to reclaim
Walking the streets dragging my heart
Wandering with my head held down in shame
When and how did my family fall apart
Who am I, what is my name?
Surviving the street lost and alone
I started a journey to find my way home
From stilettos to moccasins
Our spirit dances within
On our way to resolution
We find our peace
And this is who I am
Broken barriers and new discoveries
My spirit I now reclaim
Coming home to who I am
Taking honour in my name
No longer a prisoner lost in this world
Look within my shell
To find that pearl
From stilettos to moccasins
Our spirit dances within
On our way to resolution
We find our peace
And this is who I am
© Violet Naytowhow and the CIHR Project Research Team – Aboriginal women
drug users in conflict with the law: A study of the role of self-identity in the healing
The song release took place at a fundraising event for the Elizabeth Fry Society of
Saskatchewan, a non-profit organization committed to assisting women in conflict with the
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law. The event at which it was released, titled “Rebels with a Cause”, honours ‘rebel’
women in Saskatchewan who have made significant contributions to their communities.
These women are ‘rebels’ because of their strength, feistiness, innovation and determination
to create change in their communities. The guest Rebel of the evening was Tantoo Cardinal,
the widely acclaimed Canadian and award winning actress from theatre, television and film.
One local Rebel awardee was our research team member – Valerie Desjarlais. Valerie, who
is always humble, notes that the designation of ‘rebel’ fit her well because she felt that
because of her past incarceration and involvement in the federal correctional system she was
prevented from doing things she has wanted to. Valerie acknowledged that being able to
assist others through her community service and involvement in our larger research project
is a means for her to “help give others a voice”.
Our team’s respectful approach to including women’s stories and voices throughout the
research process, from its design to knowledge translation products, reflect our attempt to
serve Aboriginal interests through research. In particular, we worked together to legitimize,
celebrate and honour the voices of the women we spoke to who are silenced through stigma,
shame, as well as discrimination from criminalization and problematic drug use. From its
inception, our approach has recognized that the history of research within Aboriginal
communities is fraught with disrespect and the appropriation of power. Our attempts to
generate knowledge from a research process that is by, for and in balance with the voices of
Aboriginal women is a unique contribution to understanding and an honour for each member
of our team to be a contributing member to. There is an insurgence of negative stereotypes
of Aboriginal women in Canada, and specifically women in conflict with the law (Monture-
Angus, 1999; Dell, 2001b) and illicit drug users (Boyd, 2004; Murphy and Rosenbaum,
1999). Hopefully this song as well as stories like Valerie’s will assist with addressing this.
Since the creation and release of the song, the team has worked tirelessly to produce a video
and teaching guide for the song so that it can be used in the treatment centres where the
interviews took place. The video can currently be viewed and/or listened to on different
websites, including:
Migwetch, Kitatamihin, Mikwec, thank you … to the Creator and all others who have guided and walked alongside
us on our ‘research journey’. We had the honour to speak and share in the lives of women in treatment centres,
treatment staff, and women who had completed treatment programs across Canada. The women who shared their
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stories highlighted the importance for them to share their experiences so others could benefit from them. Your
courage, strength and commitment is our team’s inspiration. Through the development of tools like the song and
story sharing discussed in this paper, your voice will continue to inform and inspire many others on their healing
paths from criminalization and drug abuse, as well as those working with them.
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Along with being the Research Chair in Substance Abuse, Colleen Anne Dell is Associate
Professor in the Department of Sociology and School of Public Health at the University of
Saskatchewan. Dr. Dell is a Senior Research Associate with the Canadian Centre on
Substance Abuse, Canada’s national non-governmental addictions agency and the
Correctional Service of Canada Addictions Research Centre. She is also an Adjunct
Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University and a
Research Associate with the National Network for Aboriginal Mental Health Research at
McGill University and the Indigenous Peoples’ Health Research Centre at the University of
Saskatchewan. She is currently leading a five-year national study of the role of stigma and
identity in Aboriginal women’s healing journeys from problematic substance use.
Valerie Desjarlais is a Saulteaux woman and a student of Cree ways. Following her
incarceration she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Human Justice from the University of
Regina. Valerie is a therapist and trainer in Focusing Therapy, Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder, Domestic Violence, and Chemical Dependency. Valerie’s traditional purpose is to
be speaking Cree by the time she is 50 so she could teach her children and grandchildren (all
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children) to find balance, as well as survive in the modern ways of today and to keep passing
down the traditional ways of the ancestors. Valerie’s future academic goal is to work
towards a second degree in Specialized Education and obtain her Master’s in Justice Studies.
Jennifer Kilty is Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of
Ottawa. Her primary area of research interest is criminalized women – their experiences of
incarceration and reintegration, their adoption of self-harming behaviours, and their
construction as ‘violent’, ‘dangerous’ and/or ‘risky’. Using identity and citizenship theories,
Professor Kilty examines how different health and mental health statuses come to affect the
construction, maintenance, and negotiation of identity in prison and post incarceration.
Much of this work is based on discussions of rights and ethics of care, and is framed by a
prison abolitionist standpoint.
Dell et al. Page 11
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... 2. What interventions can be useful to minimize or mitigate these effects? 3. What are the implications of the reviewed literature for Indigenous women, particularly those experiencing complex life circumstances such as clients at Sanctum 1.5? ...
... Finally, some studies may include a population not representative of the whole spectrum of those who use substances in pregnancy, as universal screening is not typical. This review reasserts that interventions must address the unique and intersecting contexts of Indigenous women and their families [1,3,4,7]. Integrated programs such as Sanctum 1.5 that include prenatal care, parenting supports and the facilitation of socioeconomic supports and services in a culturally safe manner are necessary and promising for Indigenous women and their offspring impacted by MA use in pregnancy [1,4,7]. This review can inform promising and effective interventions for Indigenous women who use MA during pregnancy and their children that address social and cultural needs alongside health needs, which may positively impact individuals, communities and future generations. ...
... General Neonatal/Infant Outcomes3 ...
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Background: Indigenous women are overrepresented among people who use (PWU) methamphetamine (MA) due to colonialism and intergenerational trauma. Prenatal methamphetamine exposure (PME) is increasing as the number of PWUMA of childbearing age grows. Yet impacts of MA in pregnancy and effective interventions are not yet well understood. Objectives: We conducted an environmental scan of published and grey literature (2010 - 2020) to determine effects of MA use in pregnancy for mothers and their offspring, effective interventions, and implications for Indigenous women. Search strategy: A strategic search of Ovid Medline, Embase, ProQuest-Public health and CINAHL databases identified academic literature, while Google and ProQuest-Public Health identified grey literature. Selection criteria: Article selection was based on titles, abstracts and keywords. The timeframe captured recent MA composition and excluded literature impacted by COVID-19. Data collection and analysis: Data extracted from 80 articles identified 463 results related to 210 outcomes, and seven interventions. Analysis focused on six categories: maternal, neonatal/infant, cognitive, behavioral, neurological, and interventions. Main results: Maternal outcomes were more congruent than child outcomes. The most prevalent outcomes were general neonatal/infant outcomes. Conclusions: A lack of Indigenous-specific research on PME and interventions highlights a need for future research that incorporates relevant historical and sociocultural contexts.
... While prison staff actively suppress positive and strength-based actions of prisoners, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) policies and practices simultaneously facilitate harmful coping strategies. For example, placing women with mental health issues in solitary confi nement, isolation from family and friends in the community due to the high cost of phone calls, stamps, and an inaccessible visitation program are linked to acts of self-harm, suicide, drug abuse, and unhealthy eating habits (Chamberlain, 2018;de Graaf and Kilty, 2016;Dell et al., 2011;Kilty, 2011;Zinger, 2018), ultimately acting as barriers to successful community re-entry and decarceral interventions. Essentially, the penal environment is designed to "diminish initiative, punish resistance and undermine potential" (Moore and Scraton, 2014, p. 50). ...
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Abstract Methodological issues have constituted some of the deepest sources of misunderstanding between current IR feminists and IR theorists working in social scientific frameworks. IR theorists have called upon feminists to frame their research questions in terms of testable hypotheses. Feminists have responded that their research questions cannot be answered using social science explanatory frameworks. Deep epistemological divisions about the construction and purpose of knowledge make bridging these methodological divides difficult. Frequently,
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Familial circumstances, language, religion, ethnicity, social location and life experiences impact on the increasingly diverse and complex composition of individuals and their communities. While the influence of these factors has been recognised in terms of our research and theorising, arguably these intellectual activities have been predicated on an unequal relationship between researcher(s) and participant(s). The production of knowledge as a consequence of research has not necessarily positioned participants (the ‘researched’) as powerful with respect to issues of access, the conduct of the research and ownership of the intellectual and cultural products of the research process. Yet, as this paper will ask, how might research be conducted and reported with/in diverse communities that recognises the powerful position and voices of participants? This paper reports on the challenges of conducting research with Indigenous women leaders in educational organisations in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia and suggests how research based on a collaborative cross‐cultural partnership might be conducted, nurtured and sustained.
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The principles of ownership, control, access and possession (OCAP) crystallize themes long advocated by First Nations in Canada. Coined by the Steering Committee of the First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey, the principles are discussed as an expression of self- determination in research. The key notions outlined in this paper relate to the collective ownership of group information; First Nations control over research and information; First Nations' management of access to their data and physical possession of the data. Following a critical review of colonial research practices and recent institutional efforts to improve ethics in Aboriginal research, this paper highlights policies and strategies adopted by First Nations organizations - approaches which offer a way out of the muddle of contemporary Aboriginal research and the ethical dilemmas that characterize it. The benefits of OCAP are described including the rebuilding of trust, improved research quality and relevance, decreased bias, meaningful capacity development, and community empowerment to make change.